Luke Alpers will present paper at Global Youth Institute in Des Moines, Iowa.

Most high school seniors are focused on classes, sports, social life and getting through their last year to graduation in the spring.

But for Luke Alpers, a senior at Stafford High School, much of his focus is on raising food and figuring out a way to feed a starving world.

Alpers is working with Stafford High School science teacher Mark Cargill, who directs Training to Lead at SHS, to develop aquaponics, a system of growing food that doesn't require soil.

His project didn't start out focused on world hunger but that's where it evolved. Alpers wanted to see how aquaponics could impact people that were starving to death at a rate of 21,000 per day around the world.

"That was just astonishing to me," Alpers said. "It's a matter of helping people who can't help themselves and this system can help them. I love what I do. That’s the reason I come to school every day."

Aquaponics is growing plants in a soilless media, in this case a fish tank made of a plastic fertilizer spray tank (cleaned and sterilized) with rocks for a growing base. It combines with aquaculture or fish farming and uses tilapia fish. The fish fecal material gets on the rock bed where water flows by gravity. The rock bed creates bacteria that changes the ammonia in the fecal material into nitrates, a natural fertilizer that feeds the plants.

The process recycles water very efficiently. Aquaponics saves 97 percent of the water used by recycling the water the plants don't use through the system.

It's much more efficient than irrigating corn that takes 90,000 gallons of water per hour. Corn only takes in water right by the roots and the rest goes back into the aquifer. It works but its very inefficient, Alpers said.

A goal in Alpers’ research is to develop a closed system where the fish feed the plants, the plants feed the people, the reminder feeds worms in the tank and the worms feed the fish.

He is also working with duckweed as a fish food. It is small, about the size of a pinkie fingernail, and floats across the top of the pond and multiplies very quickly.

For his efforts, Alpers has been selected as a Kansas delegate to the 2016 Global Youth Institute in Des Moines, Iowa on Oct. 12-15. He has been asked to present his paper on aquaponics. He has the opportunity to be involved with the World Food Organization and discuss world food security. There will be 400 students from across the country at the Global Youth Institute, a sub section of World Food Prize.

Part of his research was focused on an African country. He chose Malawi, a poor, subsaharan country. Alpers chose malnutrition as a subject and focused on getting the right kind of food and enough food to eat. The food staple in Malawi is corn and it has been the main food since the 1800s, Alpers said.

Food is measured on the aggregate micronutrient density index that determines the vitamin and mineral content in food. Corn rates from 40 to 43 on the AMDI scale so it is a very poor food source. On the other hand, kale and spinach score a perfect 1,000 on the scale.

For his project, he is growing watercress, known as the poor man's lettuce in Europe. Watercress is easy to grow in water and it also scores a perfect 1,000 on the AMDI scale. He is testing three varieties of watercress to see which type grows the best.

Some watercress is grown in aquaponics and some in soil for comparison. The aquaponics plants are taller, have more vigorous growth, are all around healthier and look and taste better. Tomato plants in aquaponics were twice as long and had significantly more fruit than those in soil, Alpers said.

They have also grown lettuce, carrots, flowers, English ivy, tomatoes and they were better in aquaponics.

Weather in Malawi works against farmers. It only rains two months of the year. When the rains come, farmers plant their corn crop and hope for the best. What they get is corn that has little micronutrients and vitamins.

This is where aquaponics comes into play. Aquaponics doesn't take up a lot of space. It could fit in a spare bedroom. It's a much more reliable source of healthy food, it doesn't rely on rain, requires a minimal amount of water and gives people a chance to raise healthy food like kale, Alpers said.

In Africa, a fish tank would be buried in the ground to insulate the tank. It wouldn't work on top of the ground because it would get too hot.

Alpers said tilapia fish would be used because they come from the Amazon region and like hotter weather.

After hearing about the project, a visitor from Uganda went to Stafford to observe the high school greenhouse and see the system. He was impressed but said the government wouldn't let him have it.

A problem with the project is getting seeds into Malawi. It's hard to get them through customs. The government is oppressive and treats the farmers like slaves. The government controls the farms and uses the farmers to take care of the fields, Alpers said.

Malawi is landlocked but there is a huge lake on the western border with resorts, hotels and safaris. But beyond the city the economy changes and little villages are starving.

Another problem farmers face is grain storage. Much is lost because it is stored on the ground. They also have a problem getting back grain they put in storage.

Buying food on the market also has hazards. A farmer could go to market and buy a bag of corn only to get if home and find out it was half full of rocks. That's hard for the farmer that's relying on that half bag of corn to feed a family of six.

Besides aquaponics, Alpers is also studying mealworms and their ability to digest plastic and turn it into organic material that can be used as a soil supplement fertilizer. The school has five jars of mealworms and have been feeding them chicken feed as a control group. They have also been using cardboard, styrofoam, banana leaves and shredded plastic milk jugs for worm food.

Their research has proven that mealworms can eat and digest plastic jugs and styrofoam and change it into fertilizer, Alpers said.

A goal of the project is to extract the enzyme out of the mealworm stomach, reproduce it, spray it on a landfill so it would break down like food breaks down in the stomach, Alpers said.

Alpers will be able to apply for the Borlaug Scholarship that will allow him to visit the country of his choosing for eight weeks, then they will pick another country and work on food security. This year students will meet in Uganda and one other African county. There will be 700 representatives from 64 countries from around the world. He will get to collaborate with other students in huge symposium on food security. The head of the African Food Group will be there.

"I'm really looking forward to it," Alpers said. "World representatives get together and I'll present my research paper and say my viewpoint."

Alpers is a senior at Stafford High School. He is on the football team but sustained an ankle injury that finished his football season. He should be up and going again in December. He is president of the school National Honor Society, class president, involved in FFA and president of the school Jobs for America’s Graduates.

Stafford High School has 64 students and Cargill teaches all the science classes.

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