Aquaponic farm at University of Hawaii, via Kanu Hawaii/Flickr
The world is growing and growing ever more hungry, and there isn’t a single, perfect way to get more food. The changing climate and a projected water crisis cloud the future of agriculture, but the sting of food shortages is already with us, catalyzing riots and political unrest in places like Turkey, Syria and Egypt.
But countries from Bangladesh to Yemen, and cities from Berlin to Tucson, are employing an ancient farming technique to the 21st century—aquaponics is growing orchards in the desert and yielding harvests in the city.
For the water-strapped, aquaponics can look like a miracle cure. It both farms fish and grows plants using the same closed-loop, freshwater system, using just a tenth of the water that traditional agriculture requires. While aquaponics has a forebear as far back as the Aztecs, modern aquaponics has been pioneered at North Carolina State University and by James Rakocy at the University of the Virgin Islands.
Faris Farrag studied under Rakocy at the University of the Virgin Islands, and brought the technique back home to Egypt, where he has started the country’s first commercial aquaponics farm. Water circulates through tanks full of Nile tilapia, then the fish-waste laden water is treated and filtered and then flows over through trays where vegetables grow, and eventually out to irrigate the olive trees that line the farm.
"As the price of water soars, as the price of petrol soars, and when the subsidies on farming disappear, this model makes sense," Farrag told Al Jazeera.
Even in countries where water shortages aren’t an immediate problem, aquaponics holds some promise of cutting down transportation costs, because it can be done on a fraction of the land of traditional architecture. Efficient City Farming in Berlin has a prototype, urban farm in an old brewery yard and they are looking to prove how efficient and viable aquaponics is by building a 21,500 square foot farm that they expect will yield 24 metric tons of fish and 34 metric tons of vegetables annually.
It’s not nearly time to leave the fields to fallow and move to an all-fish tank system, however. While aquaponics spares farmers weeding and tilling the land while using a fraction of the water, it is a drain on other resources—namely electricity to run the pumps, money to maintain them and food to feed the fish. And aquaponics can’t grow everything yet.
“The only issue with aquaponics is that it can’t grow flowering plants – anything that produces a fruit – because fish don’t produce the amount of phosphorus and potassium in their feces that a flowering plant needs,” Anthony Eugenio, CEO of Green Harvest Hydroponics in Plaistow, New Hampshire told The Nashua Telegraph. So growing tomatoes and other fruits take additional fertilizer.
And aquaponics isn’t cheap. Farrag’s set up in Egypt as well as the single container farms in Berlin cost over $43,000. Both projects will be watched with hungry eyes, to see if they can make aquaponics pay out.
There’s nothing “back to the Earth” about aquaponics, which eschews soil for trays. But it is a way to raise yields without pumping more chemicals onto the Earth or genetically modifying anything.
Aquaponics isn’t the silver bullet that will raise yields at the rate that the world needs, but it could be part of a future agricultural economy that blends the local and vertical in urban centers, while indoor farming extends the growing season year round. Sure, we may need to start eating a lot more bugs in the future, but at least we’ll have vegetables and tilapia every now and then too.