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 (essentially fish farming) and hydroponics (growing plants without soil). Together, comes “aquaponics”. This method of growing food is more environmentally sound compared to the modern agricultural monocropping practices that demand vast plots of land, and tremendous water and pesticide application. On the contrary, aquaponics requires little land, water, energy and absolutely no synthetic chemicals. Is this new model a glimpse into agriculture’s future?

How much more environmentally-conscious is aquaponics?
Compared to traditional agricultural plant cultivation, aquaponics saves over 90% water, 70% energy and 100% pesticide usage. Due to the fact that aquaponics uses tightly-sealed indoor operations, the need for synthetic chemicals to manage insects all but disappears. All lights in the facilities are LED (light-emitting diodes), slashing energy consumption, coupled with the fact that all water is recycled. The only water ever lost is from evaporation and plant consumption.

The need for only small amounts of land, also allows for aquaponic farms to be established in cities or town warehouses, in turn, diminishing the effect of transportation; a sector that makes up 16% of all greenhouse gas emissions annually.

(On an economic scale, the growth of foods like lettuce can also be 3 – 4 times as quick as current growing methods).

The damage of modern agriculture:
The modern means of agricultural production used globally have detrimental impacts on the environment; making up about 24% of all annual greenhouse gas emissions. Currently, 38% of the earth’s land has been consumed for agricultural purposes. 70% of all water sourced and 30% of all energy generated is directly sent to this sector annually. Coupled with the 5.6 billion pounds of pesticides used.

Today, 15.3 billion trees are chopped down annually – 80% of which is driven by agriculture. By 2050 its predicted, 90% of all species will lose habitat from the intrusion of agriculture if little is done to combat the issue.

The symbiosis between fish and plants:
The purpose behind aquaponics (besides the environmental factors) is to allow fish and plants to work together in a state of symbiosis. 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 acts as a natural fertilizer the plants need. When the nitrate is released into the pools of water that the plants lie above, the growing vegetables (or fruit) absorb the nutrients via the roots whilst filtering the water that’s later returned back to the fish aquarium. The cycle continues over a prolonged period of time; wasting little water and benefiting both organisms.

How much is the aquaponics industry worth?
The aquaponics industry back in 2017 was worth $706 million AUD ($523.7 million USD). However, the industry’s expected value come 2022 will be $1.17 billion AUD ($870.6 million USD); later reaching $1.88 billion AUD ($1.4 billion USD) by 2025. While this still isn’t even comparable to the $13.6 trillion AUD ($10.1 trillion USD) modern agriculture industry, many scientific organisations believe that the aquaponics industry “is small but rapidly growing.” From 2021 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, lettuces, pumpkins, eggplants, cucumbers, peppers, onions, carrots, broccoli, cabbage, strawberries and cauliflower are just a few examples of what could be grown using aquaponics. Crops like corn and wheat are possible, but not entirely profitable like conventional fruit and vegetables yet. Because aquaponics grow plants, foods that depend on trees like apples or coco can’t be grown in this type of system. Aquaponic farming isn’t ready to replace the modern method of growing food in agriculture, and maybe not ever. Other sustainable means of growing fruit trees, for example, may have to be implemented with practices like agroforestry or permaculture.

The history of aquaponics:
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 crop fields of piled-up earth and rotted vegetation. The farmers would grow corn, chillies, greens, tomatoes and beans on top of the artificial structures. The chinampas were/are commonly known as “floating gardens”. A practice exercised long ago by native Americans – coupled with western technology – could now be the key to combating one of the largest anthropogenic issues to date.

Phood farm:
Phood Farm is a 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 controlled aquaponic farm where it grows all different leafy greens. The company believes it can produce up to 200 kilograms of lettuce per week. The lettuce grows quickly, from the beginning of germination to packing in around 6 weeks. The co-founder, Tim Elfring, says that the company doesn’t use pesticides at all due to the sealed-off, controlled environment.

Aquaponics, however, do require a significant amount of lighting for plants to undergo photosynthesis, although, this can come at an environmental cost with large energy demand. However, Phood Farm is focused on using 100% renewable energy to maintain the sustainable trend. Currently, Phood Farm is only selling lettuce but is competing with traditional lettuce growers when it comes to cost. Phood Farm could see a leap in profits soon if they were to approach the fish market as well. An added benefit; being in both the crop and fish industry but in a sustainable matter.

Aquaponics waste little water, pesticides are all but eliminated, land consumption is minuscule, is powered by renewables, and just so happens to grow the food 3 times quicker. This not only demonstrates a new means of sustainably sourcing our food, but also maintains food security as the planet’s population escalates in the coming years. Aquaponics, coupled with other practices like agroforestry, seeks to end the current unfathomable destruction we cause on a daily basis with practices like moncropping; this is nothing more than an environmental imperative.

Released on the 12th of November 2021. -KJDJ
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