Sustainability in Aquaponics
Aquaponics has been around for thousands of years, and back then, no one used words like sustainable. They just understood that by working with nature, they would have more food. Today we place value on sustainability, and we want to ensure that what we do is good for the planet, healthy for people and financially feasible.
1. Saving water
Water is an incredibly precious resource. Water availability and water quality are two very limiting factors for growing food around the world. Luckily since aquaponics requires significantly less water by recirculating it through the fish and plant system, it can help grow food in places that would otherwise struggle. Locations with significant water pollution or contamination should have adequate filtration in place before installing an aquaponic system. But the fact that less than 10% of the water used in traditional agriculture is needed, will allow that filtered water to grow a lot more in aquaponics than in soil. 100 gallons of water added to an aquaponic system, could be recirculated for several days, maybe a week or more, but that same 100 gallons of water distributed on a sundrenched thirsty soil garden would be lost by lunchtime and the plants would be suffering.
2. Overcoming the challenges of soil
It is easy to assume that soil has the things that plants need to grow. But in many locations that couldn’t be further from the truth. Soil must have a diverse microbiology, plus a perfect combination of loam, sand, clay and organic matter. It must be just the right consistency to not hold too much water or too little. Getting soil just right usually requires a lot of human (or animal) involvement: composting, tilling, adding organic material or fertilizer, applying just the right amount of water, in adequate frequency. Aquaponics removes soil from the equation completely, and that often throws off traditional gardeners. However, aquaponics provides the plant everything it needs, nutrients, oxygen and water in perfect combination and totally sustainable. So plant roots in aquaponics don’t have to bore through the soil to find what it needs and can spend all of its energy growing up into edible plant material.
3. Growing in places that otherwise don’t grow
Our farm (Flourish Farms @ The GrowHaus), is built on a slab of concrete. The soil below that slab is filled with arsenic and heavy metals. There would be no food growing in that space unless we were to haul in tons of soil, and then replenish it with nutrients over and over again. Another farm we are working on in the mountains of Colorado is sheer bedrock. Concrete, asphalt, sand, clay, rock, or industrial sites may all mean no soil is available to grow in. Aquaponics allows food to be produced in many places that would not otherwise be able to grow. The infrastructure can be setup inside greenhouse, warehouse or outdoors where weather permits.
4. Natural and constant fertilizer
Aquaponics gets its nutrients from the water source, the byproducts of the fish system, and possibly from the media materials as well. In traditional agriculture and gardening often used mined or manufactured chemical and synthetic fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides. These are exceedingly natural resource intensive to produce, cause significant pollution in the process and don’t provide a sustainable model. Since aquaponics mimics a natural ecosystem, it produces many nutrients that plants need without chemicals. This makes us feel better about the quality of the food we eat. It also means that all the machinery and human resources commonly used to apply chemical fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides are no longer necessary.
5. Producing no waste
Since aquaponic mimics nature, there really isn’t any form of waste. Any solids collected from the fish system can be added to compost or applied to tree lines or berry bushes. Any unharvested plant material from the system can be fed to animals or composted and very little if any water needs to be discharged. Nature doesn’t produce waste, and neither should methods for growing food.
6. Reducing “food miles”
Long distance transportation of our food consumes immense amounts of oil and gas in addition to the pollution and carbon foot print. The majority of store bought tilapia comes from China, bass from Chile, lettuce, tomatoes and onions from Mexico. Long distance transport for our food means more hands touching it, more refrigeration needed in multiple locations, more packaging, more food safety concerns, and less nutritious food since it has left the field many days or weeks before consuming. Aquaponics allows us to grow more food at home, for our schools and in our communities. This means more nutrition since its fresh and much less of all the negatives associated with long distance transportation.
7. Financial sustainability
For many things to work they need to make sense, as in dollars and cents. Some argue that aquaponics has a high price tag, which can be true to get up and running initially depending on the size and scale of the system, the building and infrastructure. But with the price of food increasing and the quality of the food decreasing, many people find that initial investment well worth its value in nutrition, health, piece of mind, and food security. Home and hobby scale systems can usually pay for themselves in produce and fish within 1 – 2 years. Farm scale systems can be profitable in a similar amount of time if growing the right products, having the right market place, selling at the right price and keep expenses under control. Financial sustainability is just as important as environmental sustainability. If aquaponics makes as much sense financially as it does in mimicking the natural environment, then more people will make the choice to grow with aquaponics.