Aquaponics: A Waterway to a Healthier Future?

Aquaponics: A Waterway to a Healthier Future?

Aquaponics: A Waterway to a Healthier Future?

With California in the midst of a drought seemingly without end, farmers do well for the entire country to economize their water use. So why is a farming method using water 90% more efficiently so underused?

   

Aquaponics: A Waterway to a Healthier Future?

image by: Heather Husen

While there are many ways to define agricultural production, by pretty much any overall accounting California is the #1 producer in the United States, nearly doubling the output of runner-up Iowa.

So with the Golden State in the grips of a historic drought and agriculture accounting for no less than 40% of the state's total water usage (with some claiming it's double that, although more detailed considerations peg the number as right in between), finding more water-efficient ways to farm might go a long way to keeping life livable in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and the rest of the most populous state in the union.

If you're surprised that this is the first you're hearing about a farming technique estimated to use 90–95% less water than traditional farming, 

Aquaponic farming is a means to that end. But it comes with up-front costs, raising the question of whether there is enough will today to make the necessary investment that will bear fruit—figuratively and literally—tomorrow.

For the uninitiated, here's a crash course in aquaponic farming. The term aquaponics is a portmanteau aquaculture, the raising of aquatic animals, and hydroponics, the soilless cultivation of plants in water. An aquaponic farm is an ecosystem fueled by fish. Raised and fed by the aquaponic farmer, the waste produced by the fish creates nutrient-rich water that is filtered and then siphoned to the plants. The nutritive content of the water, combined with the fact that the plants are not required to expend energy sending out a taproot, allows the plants to grow far more rapidly than they would in soil. Additionally, because the plants extract the nutrients from the water—in effect, "cleaning" it—the water can be circulated back into the fish tanks.

If you haven't heard of aquaponics, join the very big club, as aquaponic farming is far from the status quo even in states with desperate water woes, despite the fact that aquaponically-farmed crops use over 90% less water than their traditional counterparts. 

There are two primary reasons for this. One is that only some crops can be grown aquaponically. While leafy vegetables, melons, herbs, tomatoes, cucumbers, and peppers are viable candidates for aquaponic farming, root vegetables, corn, wheat, soy, rice, asparagus, and berries are not.

But because 90% water conservation on some crops is a lot better than none, it's the other reason that has kept aquaponics a clean little secret: up-front cost. For example, as recently reported by the PBS NewsHour, Ouroboros Farms, a Bay Area aquaponic farm founded in 2012, didn't begin to see a profit until this year, and founder Ken Armstrong doesn't expect to recoup all of his initial investment until 2018.

Although such set-up costs may be prohibitive, government at both the state and federal level could incentivize aquaponic farming by way of tax breaks and subsidies. It isn't as if such help for farmers is a novelty. As The Economist noted earlier this year, the federal government doles out around $20 billion annually in farm subsidies, which between 2007 and 2011 included $3 million apiece to 2,300 farms that grew no crops, an amount 12 times the total cost to set up Ouroboros Farms, which produces 2,000 heads of lettuce per week.

Considering that corn consumes approximately $4 billion of the annual farm-subsidy pie despite corn's poor nutritional value and heavy drain on resources, the government could find the money to subsidize aquaponic farming by reducing corn subsidies. As the editorial board of Scientific American opined in 2012, that reduction alone might make for a healthier country.

Government has only recently dipped its big toe into the aquaponics water. In November 2013 the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) blogged about a then-ongoing survey of grocery retailers and restaurants in Hawaii to explore the viability of aquaponic farming in the market place," which was "the first aquaponics project ever awarded a grant through USDA’s Federal-State Marketing Improvement Program (FSMIP)."

But a year-and-a-half later government is doing little to further aquaponics even on the level of spreading awareness. For example, search the California Department of Water Resources website for "farming" and you nearly 35,000 hits, while "agriculture" yields over 76,000.  But search for "aquaponic," and not a single result is returned. (The Water Dept. did not respond to HealthWorldNet's requests for comment.) It seems the best government resource is a USDA collection of links to a dozen non-governmental resources.

An unfortunate watermark in the (non-)history of aquaponics may have been the Food and Agriculture Act of 1965, when the government (as Eric Siegel writes in a fine Modern Farmer article on the subject) "firmly established financial support for traditional farming practices […] all but forgetting the bright future […] hydroponics systems promised."

Global warming and drought is casting a shadow on the future of food production in California. It may be high time for farmers—perhaps with governmental aid—collectively to make aquaponics a normal part of the food-production landscape, rather than a historical footnote of unrealized promise.


About the Author:

Except for a four-month sojourn in Comoros (a small island nation near the northwest of Madagascar), Greggory Moore has lived his entire life in Southern California.  Currently he resides in Long Beach, CA, where he engages in a variety of activities, including playing in the band MOVE, performing as a member of RIOTstage, and, of course, writing. 

His work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, OC Weekly, Daily Kos, the Long Beach Post, Random Lengths News, The District Weekly, GreaterLongBeach.com, and a variety of academic and literary journals.  HIs first novel, The Use of Regret, was published in 2011, and he is currently at work on his follow-up.  For more information:  greggorymoore.com

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Last Updated : Monday, September 12, 2022