April 10, 2019

Can waste products solve global food scarcity?

UCalgary instructor Tatenda Mambo leads the way in sustainable food development
Tatenda Mambo, postdoctoral associate, Sustainability Studies, displays his aquaponics research. Photo by Riley Brandt, University of Calgary
Tatenda Mambo, postdoctoral associate, Sustainability Studies, displays his aquaponics research. Pho

Did you know that coffee grounds can be used to grow food? This simple concept of extracting value from waste items is driving a University of Calgary researcher to consider if something so accessible could be part of tackling food security challenges while recycling nutrients to model sustainability.

Dr. Tatenda Mambo, PhD, postdoctoral associate in UCalgary’s Sustainability Studies, believes so much in the positive impact of this approach to food production on our Earth that he has conducted his own experiments to cultivate mushrooms using coffee grounds.

“Less than 20 per cent of a coffee bean actually ends up in your cup because you don’t consume the grounds,” says Mambo. “I started using coffee grounds because it means you can take this waste food product and extract another food product out of it and then compost what’s left over. That way you’re extracting more value out of a coffee bean, and the low-tech method of production vastly reduces the amount of energy associated with conventional mushroom production.”

Mambo’s goal is to expose UCalgary students to ideas of nutrient cycling and closed loops through this type of food production, but that’s not all he’s up to on campus. He’s also researching aquaponics and trying to apply the concept to people in remote areas who have little sovereignty over their own food production. This could be beneficial to northern communities who currently pay large sums of money for fresh food.

Outside of his personal research, Mambo has his day-to-day commitments through Sustainability Studies. Currently, he is working to grow the academic framework of the Institutional Sustainability Strategy by showing students that sustainability is part of many academic programs, and by promoting experiential learning opportunities. On top of that, he also teaches the Certificate in Sustainability Studies’ Sustainability Research Methods course this semester and wants to expand the scope of the certificate by establishing a food production and agriculture field school.

“We are currently offering DEST 401 Farm Field School during the summer semester, where students will work with regenerative farming practices in the creation of an integrated farm system. Different methods of production will be practised simultaneously, allowing waste streams from one activity to feed into another, thus functioning as a holistic ecological system. Aquaponics and mushroom production will be part of this integrated system that students can work with,” says Mambo. “Our goal is to provide hands-on learning for students in terms of how to sustainably produce food in our southern Alberta climate.”

The majority of Mambo’s work at UCalgary focuses on sustainable food development, stemming from a passion he developed while completing a PhD in geography on urban food security in Malawi.

“We don’t realize it, but the biggest impact we have on the natural world is through eating food,” says Mambo. “For each person, we are responsible for acres of land and accompanying resources, based on how we eat. If we don’t produce food in a way that mimics how nature works, we produce pollutants and toxins, and over-exhaust natural resources, which undercuts nature’s ability to continue producing food for us. It’s our ‘use once and throw out’ mentality that we need to change. If we can take things that we think are waste and find ways to extract value from them, we can recycle those nutrients, and it gets us closer to a more sustainable world.”

By leading the energy revolution, growing food security and protecting water resources, the University of Calgary is building a better future for all. Discover more of our sustainability success stories here.