Is aquaponics a sneak peek into the future of sustainable agriculture?

What is aquaponics?
Aquaponics is one of many ways to source organic food. The method combines aquaculture which is basically fish farming and hydroponics which means growing plants without soil. Together, you get ‘aquaponics’. This method of growing food is far more environmentally friendly compared to the modern model of growing food on large plots of land, using tremendous amounts of water and pesticides. Aquaponics requires little land, water, energy and absolutely zero pesticides. So, is this model potentially the future of sustainable agriculture?

How much more environmentally friendly is aquaponics?
Compared to traditional plant cultivation in agriculture, aquaponics saves over 90% water, 70% energy and 100% pesticide usage. Due to the fact that aquaponics is operated indoors, it makes it increasingly difficult for bugs to destroy the plants hence why there is no need for pesticides. All lights in the facilities are LED (light-emitting diodes) slashing energy consumption and all water is recycled. The only water ever lost is from evaporation and plant consumption. Not only is aquaponics clearly far less environmentally damaging, but the growth of foods like lettuce can be three to four times as quick as the traditional growing methods. Because aquaponics only requires small amounts of land, the systems can be set up in locations like cities or towns, in turn drastically cutting down on transportation; a sector that makes up 16% of all greenhouse gas emissions annually.

The damage modern agriculture has on the planet:
The modern version of agriculture still predominately used globally has detrimental impacts on the environment, making up 20% of all annual greenhouse gas emissions. Today, 38% of all land on earth has been consumed for agricultural purposes. 70% of all water sourced and 30% of all energy generated is directly sent to this sector annually. In addition, 5.6 billion pounds of pesticides are added to the already destructive industry. While this may already be concerning, the current damage isn’t even remotely representing the potential impacts in the future with the industry growing at a rate of 3.6% yearly. Currently, 15.3 billion trees are chopped down each year with agriculture being the main culprit for 80% of that. On average, 12.24 billion trees are removed each year for more land resulting in thousands of wild animal species being pushed down the road to extinction.
We thank modern agriculture for that.

The connection between fish and plants:
The whole purpose behind aquaponics (besides the environmental factors) is to allow fish and plants to work together and help both organisms thrive. When fish poo (for lack of a better term), the waste is sent to a tank where a bacterium growing in the water turns the potentially toxic ‘ammonia’ into a healthy ‘nitrate’ which is a natural fertilizer full of nutrients the plants will love. When this nitrate is released into the pools of water that the plants sit above, the growing vegetables or fruit absorb the nutrients while helping filter the water which is then later sent back to the fish tank so the fish have a clean place to swim. This cycle continues for a long time, wasting no water and helping both organisms grow and thrive in the most environmentally friendly way.

How much is the aquaponics industry worth?
The aquaponics industry back in 2017 was worth $706 million AUD ($523.7 million USD). However, this is expected to increase to $1.17 billion AUD ($870.6 million USD) by 2022 and reach $1.88 billion AUD ($1.4 billion USD) by 2025. While this still isn’t anywhere near the size of the $13.6 trillion AUD ($10.1 trillion USD) modern agriculture industry, many scientific organisations have said that the aquaponics industry “is small but rapidly growing”. From now to 2025, the aquaponics industry is set to grow at a CAGR (Compound Annual Growth Rate) of 14.5%.

What plants could be grown in aquaponics?
Tomatoes, leafy lettuces, pumpkins, eggplants, cucumbers, peppers, onions, carrots, broccoli, cabbage, strawberries and cauliflower are just a few examples of what could be grown using this method. Maybe even foods like corn and wheat are possible, but not entirely profitable like the conventional fruit and vegetables yet. Because aquaponics grow plants, some other foods like apples or coco can’t really be grown in this type of system. Aquaponic farming isn’t ready to completely replace the modern method of growing food in agriculture but could help drastically slash land usage with no need to grow conventional fruit, vegetables and potentially wheat etc on large outdoor land anymore.
As mentioned briefly, currently growing things like corn and/or wheat isn’t very profitable and will take some serious work to look after. However, this could be a game-changer in slashing emissions from the agriculture industry if found to be successful in many aquaponic farms. By ending all or at least the majority of corn and wheat production on traditional farmland and converting to the environmentally friendly option of aquaponics, hundreds of millions of acres could be reforested or used for other things globally. In the United States of America alone, 97 million acres are taken up for corn production! That’s an area roughly the size of California.

The history of aquaponics:
While all sustainable inventions seem to be coming to life in recent times, the idea behind aquaponics is thousands of years old. The first implementation of aquaponics was seen back in 1300 CE during the time of the Aztecs in what is now Mexico. These systems, very similar to aquaponics today were called ‘chinampas’ which were essentially multiple crop fields of piled-up earth as well as rotted vegetation. The farmers at the time would then grow corn, chillies, greens, tomatoes and beans on top of the human-made natural structures. The chinampas were/are commonly known as ‘floating gardens’. It’s incredible to think that a practice done thousands of years ago has come back around to potentially replace our new revolution of modern agriculture.

Phood farm:
Phood Farm is a recent start-up company based in the Netherlands that has begun selling fresh produce from aquaponic farms. The company owns an old, large warehouse that has a huge controlled aquaponic farm where it grows all different leafy lettuces. The company believes it can produce up to 200 kilograms of lettuce per week. The lettuce can grow incredibly quickly, from the beginning of germination to in bags ready to be eaten at full size in around six weeks. The co-founder, Tim Elfring says that the company doesn’t require any pesticides at all due to how controlled the facility is. He also said that if any pests were to sneak in, only organic pest control would be used to ensure the practice is as sustainable as possible and to ensure the fish are healthy. Aquaponics require a significant amount of lighting to ensure the plants can grow really well, although, this can come at a cost to the planet in terms of large energy usage. However, Phood Farm along with many other aquaponic farming companies are strongly focussing on using 100% renewable energy to continue the sustainable trend. Currently, Phood Farm is only selling lettuce but is certainly competing with traditional lettuce growers when it comes to cost. Phood Farm could see a leap in profits soon if they chose to also begin selling their fish to markets and shops. This would be an additional benefit to aquaponic farmers by also being capable of selling seafood as well as their fruit, vegetables and/or wheat etc.

The excessive use of pesticides and the completely unsustainable amount of water, energy and land consumed for modern agriculture is destroying the environment. So, solutions like aquaponics must very quickly take over large portions of agriculture. Aquaponics waste very little water, the energy consumption is very small in comparison to current agriculture practice, the use of pesticides is eliminated, the land consumption is tiny and it so happens that the food grows three times quicker as well. This not only demonstrates a new way to sustainably source our food but also be capable of supporting the ever-growing population set to reach ten billion. This model of agriculture replaces a current environmentally damaging food production system with one that thinks about the people, planet and future.

Released on the 12th of November 2021. -KJDJ
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