Aquaponics: feeding fish (and us)!

Sometime this month the world will hit 7 billion people. It’s impossible to know when exactly, as so many societies don’t maintain birth records. All of those people have to eat something, but there are a lot of factors working against filling 7 billion plates.

The two biggest challenges are those of space and water – there just isn’t enough of either. As it stands right now, farm and ranch lands cover nearly 40 percent of Earth. The concern isn’t just in square meters though, it’s also in agricultural inputs and outputs.

Inputs:

  • H2O: Agriculture consumes nearly ¾ of Earth’s available fresh water.
  • Petroleum: In the form of fertilizer, mechanized farm processes, and transportation.

Outputs:

  • Greenhouse gases: Overuse of fertilizers, clearing land, growing rice, and raising cattle are responsible for 35% of the single largest contributor of greenhouse gases.
  • Animal feed: Approximately 40% of all crops are produced with the intent of being used as animal feed.

Now imagine a way to feed billions of people without the harsh demands on water and petroleum, using land that has previously been considered unsuitable for agriculture. I’m sure you’re imagining something spectacular and space-age, but I’m talking about aquaponics. I’m the first to admit that I gained most of my childhood knowledge from Disney and Pixar, but the sharks in Finding Nemo? They were definitely wrong. Fish are friends, and food.

How does aquaponics works?

It’s a closed system of fish and plant life that sustain each other with little human intervention. The plants act as a cleansing system to remove toxic ammonia and nitrite from the water by breaking fish excrement down into usable fertilizer. When the water is returned to the fish tank it is clean and toxin-free.

So it sounds like using giant tanks of water isn’t an effective way to cut down on water use in agriculture? Wrong! Compared to traditional methods of crop production, aquaponics uses about 10 times less water. Yes, there is the initial filling of the tanks, but after that the water is recycled within the system, thus making aquaponics the perfect solution for places with little water to spare.

Unlike the Scandinavians, here in North America we may not be ready for a diet based solely on tilapia (the most common fish used in aquaponics) and salad. There is still a lot of merit in the system, though. If every family were to establish their own aquaponic system (at a footprint of about 30 square feet) they could become completely self-sufficient in plant food. Eating your own fish is a definite option (so your basic nutrition is covered), but other forms of protein and specialty items would have to be sourced elsewhere.

I’m not advocating for the complete overhaul of the world’s agricultural systems. I am, however, in favour of re-examining farming methods where there is unsustainable stress on the land and advocating for ways that more people can be more in control of their food source. Aquaponics surely isn’t the only answer, but it is one to start thinking about.

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