In October, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced it had awarded nearly $150 million in grants across 15 projects that support sustainable agricultural research projects.
Central State University, a historically black land-grant university (HBCU) located in Wilberforce, Ohio, earned one of two $10-million Sustainable Agricultural Systems (SAS) grants designated to hemp-related projects from the USDA. (Oregon State University received the other hemp-related grant.)
Central State’s focus? Feeding hemp to seafood.
The university assembled a multidisciplinary team with five other land-grant institutions to study how hemp grain could replace some or all of the feed used in aquaponics. The five-year project—known as Sustainable Use of a Safe Hemp Ingredient, or SUSHI—has three aspects: a research portion, an education portion, and an extension outreach portion.
With partner institutions spanning four states beyond Ohio, the project reaches far beyond simply studying hemp as aquaculture feed. Partner schools include including College of Menominee Nation (a tribal land-grant community college in Wisconsin), Kentucky State University (an HBCU), University of Delaware, University of Kentucky and Mississippi State University.
Here, project lead Brandy Phipps, Ph.D., a research assistant professor of food, nutrition and health at Central State, explains the goals for the project, the potential of hemp in aquaculture feed, and the broad impacts the study could have far beyond its end point.
Theresa Bennett (TB): Can you start off by telling me some of the ultimate goals of this research project?
Brandy Phipps (BP): We hope that [the results of this project] have the potential to open up markets for hemp grain, and that it may create more economical and environmentally sustainable systems for people producing aquaculture fish. We hope to increase the number of underrepresented minority graduates in agriculture. But ultimately, it's about, how do we make sure that we can feed the rapidly growing population on this planet in ways that contribute the least to climate change and are affordable and accessible to everybody? I mean, isn't that really the goal of agriculture? How do we feed our people in a way that doesn't destroy the planet and that people can afford? We try to touch on all of that.
With our extension work, we're going to be doing a couple of things. We're going to create certificate programs in aquaculture production and hemp production. We're also going to provide startup funds for some of the first graduates of those certificate programs; we expect to fund up to six new aquaculture producers up in Menominee Nation while also working with local retailers and restaurants to help set up connections so those new producers have a supply chain for what they produce.
In addition, this project will provide an extension aquaponics facility at the College of Menominee Nation, which will host field days and community food distributions. This allows community members who aren't necessarily in the certificate programs to see how aquaponics works, providing an opportunity for them to learn and perhaps gain interest in entering that agriculture field. That facility and programming will also allow the College of Menominee to provide food to those who might not have other ways of accessing it. So, there's a lot going on, and we're really excited about it.
TB: So, why hemp, and why fish?
BP: When we talk about hemp, a lot of people think of either the fiber or they think of the flower for CBD. What people sometimes forget is that hemp grain is an incredibly nutrient-dense source of food. … Not only does it have a good balance of carbs, proteins and fats, not only does it have heart-healthy fats that we always hear about (omega-3 fats), but it has an ideal balance of omega-6 to omega-3 fats. And if that wasn't enough to make it incredibly nutrient-dense, hemp is one of the few plant proteins that we call “complete,” meaning that its protein contains all of the essential amino acids needed in the human diet. Few plants have protein that is complete.
So, that's kind of why hemp, but then you might go, well, why hemp for [aquaponics]? … Seafood in general tends to be nutrient-dense. From a production standpoint, land-based aquaculture tends to be easier on the climate than many other traditional land-based agriculture systems. So, you can see that a focus on aquaculture production, whether it's fish or other types of seafood, really has the potential to hit all of those major things that we need as humans—producing enough food in a way that's economically viable and has the least significant negative environmental impact.
When we think about high-value fish—like rainbow trout, which is what we're going to be working with—for them to be grown in fisheries and aquaculture, they typically have to be provided with fish oil and fish meal. These products most often are sourced from wild-caught fish, which is both expensive and impacts the environmental sustainability of the system. It also tends to be the most expensive ingredient in aquaculture feed. So, if we can replace some or all of the fish oil or fish meal with hemp products, we have now transformed a system to produce nutrient-dense fish in a way that may be less burdensome to the environment and at a better price point for both the producers and consumers.
"...[W]e're very lucky that the things that we're passionate about also have the potential to have such a great impact on the world." -Brandy Phipps, Ph.D., SUSHI project lead, assistant professor at Central State University
TB: Can you explain how you plan to carry out the experiment over the next five years?
BP: We're going to be doing a series of feeding trials. You can imagine each one takes time because you're starting with baby fish, called fingerlings, and you need to feed them up to market weight in order to evaluate how they grow, their health, and what compounds are in edible portions once they're done. So, it's basically five years of various feeding trials to determine how safe and effective hemp products are in the aquaculture production of rainbow trout.
With the education portion, we're providing scholarships for graduates from the College of the Menominee Nation, which is a primarily two-year college, to complete their education here at Central State in one of four agriculture-related degrees. We anticipate that at least some of those students from a Native American population will take those degrees back to their reservation and uplift that community with the skills and the knowledge that they have acquired.
Another small piece is that we will be examining some overall health metrics in partnership with the diabetes clinic in Menominee Nation. Over five years, we'll do pre-surveys to look at fish intake, vegetable and produce intake, etc. And then, we can see at the end of the five years, when the extension programming and new producers will have increased the supply [of fish and produce] in the area, do people's behavior change? Do we see an increase [in fish and produce consumption]? In addition to potential behavior changes, we can gather county health data to see if there's been a population effect on any [health] risk factors.
TB: So, in the fish that you're feeding the hemp to, will you be studying both their nutritional profile and whether they contain cannabinoid residuals?
BP: Absolutely. That has been, I think, one of the main consumer concerns—people wonder if animals that are meant for consumption are fed hemp, could they possibly retain cannabinoids? Do [cannabinoids] concentrate in those edible portions? And if so, would those cannabinoids be passed onto the consumer? One of the major goals of this project is to provide that data.
TB: And will you ultimately use that data to submit a new animal feed ingredient application to the Association of American Feed Control Officials [AAFCO]?
BP: That is actually one of our specific objectives. By the end of this, we should have data to provide an application to AAFCO. We spent a lot of time designing our feeding trials and analyses to be robust, so we feel pretty confident that we are going to be collecting the right kind of data for the FDA [U.S. Food and Drug Administration] and AAFCO. Now, that doesn't mean they're going to approve it—it just means that our goal is to provide the data that they would need to make a decision.
TB: Does your research have any other key objectives?
BP: Another key objective of the research is to investigate how [hemp in aquaponic feed] might impact various sectors of the economy, including environmental, consumer and agriculture production economics. All of these economic analyses will be happening in parallel with the feeding trials.
TB: Is there anything else you’d like to add about your research?
BP: There've only been 32 [SAS grants] funded over three funding cycles, so it's pretty historic that a primarily undergraduate institution, an HBCU, was one of those 32. We're the only school in Ohio to ever receive it and we're the only HBCU to ever receive it. We are excited to have been chosen to perform this work.
Also, I attended a conference [recently], and it was interesting that they were discussing how one of the strategic priorities of the United Nations is to transform aquaculture systems in order to address global food and nutrition security. To be doing a project that is so directly in line with international goals, to be part of the solution for international issues—it's very, very exciting. It's very humbling. It's a lot of pressure, but it's good pressure. It means that the way that we're thinking is right, and we're very lucky that the things that we're passionate about also have the potential to have such a great impact on the world.
Editor’s note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.