Aquaponics – The Promise of Food
April 26, 2012 | David Rosenstein
The following is the first post in a series by David Rosenstein that will explore the benefits of aquaponics. Rosenstein is the founder of Mar Vista, CA-based EVO Farm, which operates the only commercial aquaponics farm in Los Angeles. He is also the chair of the Aquaponics Association – Western Region.
If you count the number of people who are actually actively engaged in aquaponics on a global scale, that number is statistically about as close to zero as you can get. Yet, this relatively unknown method of food production is not only the most promising next step in agriculture, but also on the very short list of things that just might save ourselves from ourselves.
Many more traditionally minded naysayers doubt the potential of aquaponics. Frankly, I don’t blame them. It doesn’t have the years of refinement that other techniques do. Furthermore, with such easy access to “how-to” info online, it can be challenging for hobbyists and entrepreneurs to decipher how to run and optimize a system for a particular goal, which can perpetuate poor practices and result in failure. But somewhere in this ever-growing body of aquaponicists, there are a select few who stay the course, remain razor focused and are discovering the tiny subtleties that will propel this already elegant and essential food system into something even greater – common knowledge.
In a world of peak everything – other than compassion – innovation in how we feed the ever-exploding growth of Earth’s population is a rare remaining hope. If this relatively new species called homo sapiens can survive long enough to unlearn the path of the not-so-green Green Revolution and rethink the critical nature of what we eat, how we access that food and how it is distributed, then we might just find a new trajectory for this spiral we are on.
A new set of definitions is required to begin the discourse that will set us straight. Local is not something that is measured in miles but in feet. Sustainable is more than just something that feels good, it is also profitable, tastes great, and will remain present for the foreseeable future. Resilience is not the ability to fight the ever-changing face of nature, but to actually acquiesce and work from within it until we realize that without it we have just about nothing left.
To think that we can outsmart natures’ system is a fundamental flaw of the modern age. If only we can sit still, observe, and try to understand what systems have worked for the planet long before we arrived, we just might be pleasantly surprised. As it turns out, we have numerous opportunities to replicate and integrate these systems that have stood the test of time. A pond in a forest – arguably on the ‘surface’, one of the simplest systems of all – is likely the one that can have the most profound affect on the future of food.
Just as we have all breathed the same molecule of air that passed through the lungs of Napoleon, a drop of water passes through an extensive lifecycle that at one point or another finds itself in an ever-so-small body of water surrounded by trees. In it is a vast array of visible aquatic species like frogs and fish, as well as plants that surprisingly can survive with roots that are entirely submerged. Birds fly overhead and mammals sip from the banks, and effluent from all finds its way into the body of water. At the bottom is an array of detritivores like snails, fleas, and mosquito larva. On the surface are a variety of algae and in the water column are bacteria and other microorganisms that help tie this whole web together. We don’t need to understand exactly how it is possible that all these life forms can live together harmoniously, or rather symbolically. But, if we can accept that this system has been proven to work for a time measured geologically and that we may benefit by trying to replicate it, we will only have accomplished what the Aztecs did some 900 years ago.
In an area near Tenochtitlan, which today would be called the Valley of Mexico. The indigenous people of the region developed a dam and levy system to capture rainwater and snowmelt from the surrounding volcanoes. On the lake they created, they built floating islands made of reeds anchored by trees they planted. On the islands they were able to cultivate things like Maize, beans and squash that were staples of their diet. These crops were able to not only wick the moisture they needed, but also the nutrients they required to thrive from the lake. At that time Tenochtitlan was likely the largest city in the world estimated to have been inhabited by upwards of 500,000 people. A population that size at that point in history was only possible because they were able to farm in and around the city, i.e. urban farming.
The population was so vast and concentrated that they had another problem – what to do with all of their human waste. They realized that if they deposited their waste into the lake, it was not only more sanitary for the city, but also a feed source for the critters and a fertilizer for the crops. By “stacking functions” they were able to solve multiple problems and create a tremendous opportunity. Their method of farming called Chinampas is likely the earliest form of aquaponics.
Today, modern aquaponics is in its infancy. Yet it has been in practice in one form or another for at least 30-years with constant innovation and refinement occurring on at least three continents. While there is currently no substitute for well-managed soil, unfortunately not only is soil availability on a steep decline and nutritionally deficient, but it is also unable to sufficiently feed growing populations in the urban environment. If urban farming is to be sustainable – that is, to be environmentally responsible, financially sound and offer an array of food choices including plant and animal – aquaponics is the one option on the table that can satisfy all.
Rarely does hindsight present an opportunity to see forward. Fortunately, though, the indigenous people of Mexico not only provide a glimpse of a sustainable food system, but also the consequences if it is removed. When the Spanish conquistadors arrived, one of the first actions they took was to break the levees and dams. What better way to conquer a society than to remove its ability to feed itself? Or conversely, what better way to save a society than to integrate a food system that has higher yields, uses the least amount of water, can exceed organic standards, taste delicious and can be utilized year-round… right next door?
Aquaponics is the future of food production for a long list of reasons. Most importantly though, it is because it is an open-source platform that is constantly being improved, shared far and wide and will never be owned or controlled by any one individual or entity – decentralized the way food is meant to be.