Aquaponics is a popular sustainable food manufacturing technique that combines vegetative and fish cultivation principles. Compared with traditional farming, aquaponics is much more eco-friendly primarily because it is soilless, which means the challenges associated with soil growing are effectively dealt with.
In this article, I will explore more how aquaponics is an environmentally friendly method of food production.
What is aquaponics?
Aquaponics is a sustainable, eco-friendly method of food production that is gaining popularity among individuals, farmers, entrepreneurs, educators, missions, and government organizations. This term aquaponics is a combination of two terms - aquaculture and hydroponics. Consequently, aquaponics involves growing both fish and plants in one growing technique.
Aquaponics utilizes both fish and plants in producing food by taking advantage of their symbiotic relationships. The organic wastes are feeding the plants, and in return, the latter filters the water that sustains the fish. Besides the fish and their manure, microbes are also present in an aquaponics setup. These helpful bacteria accumulate in the plants' root system and convert wastes into valuable substances that benefit the plants.
How does aquaponics work?
Since aquaponics combines two food production methods, its setup comprises two growing systems - one for cultivating plants and the other for growing fish.
- Grow bed - This is the area where vegetables are grown. Water originating from the fish tank is pumped to reach the grow beds for the plants to access the nutrients. Grow media are present in the grow bed because they are the ones who aid the plant in optimal nutrient absorption by allowing bacteria to grow. These grow media could be gravel, clay pebbles, and lava rock.
- Fish tank - Fish tanks contain the fish whose manure serves as the biological fertilizers of the plants. There are several factors needed in setting up fish tanks: shape, material, and color. Each contributes to the well-being of the fish so that they will live and thrive. The water from the grow bed has undergone filtration, thanks to the growing media available there. Water that is clean and free from solid substances is re-supplied to the fish tank.
What are the challenges of aquaponics?
The setup of aquaponics is not perfect. There are still some aspects that need to be considered if a person is pondering adopting this approach. Here are some of the common difficulties of aquaponics:
- Electricity consumption - Fish, akin to humans, need oxygen to survive. This fact is why we have air pumps installed in our aquariums. Sustaining the oxygen levels of the fish tank in an aquaponics structure means the pumps should receive an uninterrupted, 24/7 electric supply. And this, of course, results in a considerably high electric bill. This challenge can be met by harnessing the renewable energy resources of the environment, such as solar energy and wind energy. Specific aquaponics farms utilize these forms of energy to produce electricity during the day; then, they use generators, the power grid or batteries at nighttime to supply their setups with uninterrupted electricity.
- Meticulous monitoring - Farming practitioners and authors agree that aquaponics is tricky since both the fish and the plants need close monitoring. If the fish's living conditions abruptly change, they may not survive, which could negatively affect the plants. The plants, on the other hand, are susceptible to specific infections and illnesses. To address this issue, aquaponics enthusiasts may opt to automate their setups. This leads to purchasing and using different sensors that will monitor vital components of the design, e.g., water levels, pH levels, temperature, and water flow speed. Feeding mechanisms may undergo automation so that the growers can free up some of their time and manage other more pressing matters
- Algae growth - The uncontrolled growth of algae in aquaponics puts both the plants and fish at serious risk. Green algae are the most common ones that growers should look out for. Algae can die off and will accumulate in grow beds, consuming oxygen in the process. Eventually, the system's DO (dissolved oxygen) decreases, leading to the fish's suffocation. There are two effective ways of troubleshooting this issue: shading and mechanical filtration. For shading, dark-colored tarpaulins are used to cover the fish tanks so algae growth would be inhibited. Mechanical filtration involves the use of filters and screens to remove the presence of algae.
- Limited crops - To say that everything can be grown in aquaponics is a bit of an overstatement. This is aquaponics' generally recognized disadvantage: It can only accommodate certain types of vegetables. For example, tuberous plants and root crops cannot be cultivated in an aquaponics system since they require soil to survive. Large crops are complicated to grow with this strategy because it necessitates more nutrients and water. Potatoes, radish, parsnip, carrots, sweet potatoes, blueberries, and chrysanthemum are some known examples of unsuitable plants and crops for the procedure. Some fish are incompatible with aquaponics, such as salmon, trout, yellow perch, and largemouth bass. If you plan to utilize aquaponics as an additional income stream, I recommend researching which vegetables or fish have a high market demand and cultivate them. Even though you have limited species, still the increased market demand would lead to increased income.
How can aquaponics help to achieve environmental sustainability?
- Water saver - We know the value of water in our world. It is an incredibly important resource we should try to save. In aquaponics, water is conserved because it undergoes continuous recirculation through the fish and plant systems. It is estimated that 100 gallons of water allocated for aquaponics could be used for several days or even a week. Now compare this to long-established farming approaches where the 100-gallon of water can only be used once. In fact, aquaponics uses 90% less water as compared with traditional farming. People can set up their aquaponics system through this water-saving feature without greatly struggling with their water supplies.
- Natural fertilizers - In conventional agriculture methods, chemical and synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides are employed. All of these can cause pollution and affect our well-being. Because aquaponics imitates a natural ecosystem, the nutrients plants receive are chemical-free. Vital nutrients that feed the plants come from the water itself and are produced naturally by the fish system.
- Reduction of "food miles." - Aquaponics dramatically reduces the distance between our food from its source. We can base this on the fact that vegetables and fish may come from nearby households or areas with aquaponics. Lessened food miles mean there are minimized fuel usages and carbon footprints.
- Land conservation - In traditional farming, many land spaces are required, not just for the plantation itself but also for storing the harvest. But with aquaponics, farmers will only use 10% of land space because hectares of farmlands are taken out of the equation. Some growers even use empty warehouses to serve as their growing areas. Aside from this, the threat of soil erosion is absent as farmers utilize aquaponics setup. Aquaponics indeed provides us with a powerful solution to the land problem brought by old-fashioned agricultural farming.
- Lesser waste production - One impressive aspect of aquaponics is the minimal input of materials into the system. You would only put fish food. Therefore, the waste materials are biological, and these serve as plant fertilizers.
Why is there a need for environmentally friendly methods of food production?
Reducing environmental effects and supporting the world's capacity to produce food in the future means our current global food production systems must alter. Today's food production methodologies contribute to climate change, water scarcity, soil degradation, and biodiversity loss like other artificial activities.
Hard as it may be to accept, but agriculture has been a dominant force that leads to the environmental decline we experience today:
- Crop and animal production and forestry are estimated to account for 25% of total global greenhouse gas emissions.
This situation is detrimental to our planet and risking the future of succeeding generations.
- Crop and livestock industries consume 70% of freshwater resources and occupy 60% of the Earth's land surface, together with forestry.
With this current setting, there is a danger of depleting our water resources that pose a severe threat to food security.
Food production, food consumption, nutrition, and food security are among the most pressing issues that need attention and concrete programs. Providing a stable food supply for the world's rapidly rising population is a serious concern. The world's population is expected to reach 9.1 billion people by 2050. This projection is 34 percent higher than today. To achieve the goal above while simultaneously preserving our world, more food will have to be produced using fewer land spaces.
Here we can safely state that aquaponics is an efficient solution to the challenge of adopting environmentally friendly food manufacturing methods.
Aquaponics is a promising food sustainability approach. Although it still needs more research work, aquaponics certainly promotes respect and preservation of our ecosystem for the benefit of those we leave behind.