Aquaponics will change how we get our food

Ben Scheelk

It’s that unremitting sound, the endless gurgling of water as it runs off the improvised rockwool filtration system, which always reminds me that my roommate is saving the world. Well, maybe not directly, but he is experimenting with an old idea in a bold and innovative way that has the potential to revolutionize how much of the world’s population gets its food.

It’s called aquaponics, and the idea is to create a symbiotic relationship between plants and animals in order to produce food in a closed loop system in which the products of one activity become the sources for another. Aquaponics, an elegant synthesis of aquaculture and hydroponics, capitalizes on ecological relationships that exist in nature by replicating them in an artificial setting. People are taking this ancient idea and applying it on a micro-scale in order to raise fish and grow produce in their own homes while using water efficiently.

In an aquaponics system, biological byproducts from the fish provide plants with nutrients. Ammonia, which is continuously released into the water from the fish waste and through the gills during respiration, is toxic for the fish if it builds up too much in the water, and it is not absorbed well by the plants. This is where the genius of aquaponics lies. Special bacteria, which are cultivated by the presence of the plants, act to convert the toxic ammonia into nitrates. Then, other beneficial bacteria turn the nitrates into nitrites, which are readily absorbed by the plants, thereby reducing the toxicity of the water for the fish. This process, called nitrification, makes the fish and the plants mutually dependent on one another to provide a stable, nutrient rich, aquatic environment.

As I look at the primitive prototype in my living room, I cannot help but admire its noble simplicity and its clever use of limited resources. It is a reciprocating syste that utilizes two suspended clay beds for plants, installed in a vertical, south-facing arrangement, which are flooded and drained daily. A pump transports water to the top so it can be gravity-fed through the two planters and back into the bottom of the fish tank. A multitude of pipes and wires that are used in its filtration, oxygenation and pump systems snake about chaotically like a mass of sinuous tentacles bunched along the end of the tank—an eerie and somewhat morbid curiosity for the fish that gaze absent-mindedly at the hardware, unaware that they are being kept in a sort of matrix, used like batteries to power a system that serves our needs. The school of perch swim around the tank as one cohesive unit, while the sterile light of the fluorescent bulb above illuminates dozens of young seedlings which will grow up to become peas, cucumbers, tomatoes, and Romaine lettuce. Sure, the fish eat TetraMin flakes and swim about a PVC pipe pyramid, but everything else, including the Lake  Superior rock bottom, is totally organic. It’s the idea that is important, the thought that anyone with the knowledge and resourcefulness to do this can assemble an at-home system that can supplement and even fulfill his normal diet.

It is not hard to envision a future where water and other resources are increasingly scarce. It is time that we fully embrace permaculture and begin to look seriously towards nature in order to learn the best ways to manage our resources and support a sustainable economy. In developing countries, where clean water is hard to find and space is limited, aquaponic systems can be built to provide much needed food and a source of income with little initial investment.

In developed countries, where toxins from industrialized agriculture poisons our watersheds and commercial fisheries are being exhausted due to our insatiable appetite for seafood, aquaponics can take the pressure off of wild fish stocks and provide a means for people to grow fresh produce all-year-long.

Yet, most importantly, aquaponics is the realization of a concept, the recognition that everything we do can be made more efficient by observing nature and mimicking its reciprocal relationships. In a closed loop, production itself becomes an act of recycling. Once again, aquaponics makes production possible for everyone, as long as they have a little bit of capital and a whole lot of persistence, to provide for their own sustenance with the least amount of environmental impact. Decentralization: it’s the future of energy production … why not food as well?