Aquaponics: capturing the power of the natural world in your own backyard
A Guest Post by Andrew D Berner
I reached one of those “ah-ha” moments several years back.
I was thinking about the theory that says, Mother Nature is the world’s best engineer. The idea that the natural world, operating at the microscopic level and trickling up through to the greater ecosystems of the planet, appears to calibrate, cooperate, orchestrate, and synthesize in perfect harmony.
Think about it. The world is not a static place, it’s a dynamic and messy collection of interests and competition that has billions of moving parts; trying to manage it as a single shareholder is unimaginable. Some how, the world keeps turning and life continues. This theory does not suggest that there are no struggles, but within the greater perspective of the operational guide to the natural world, things continue to hum along and when they break, the natural world adapts.
This is not a new concept. Many native cultures have been in tune to this idea since the age of the hunter-gatherer. Listening to the natural world and paying attention to the subtle changes within the surrounding environment increased survival potential and grounded cultural views. The concept is simple; why fight your environment when you can embrace it, channel its energy, use it to your advantage.
In modern day applications, this field has expanded throughout the science and engineering communities. Applications of ‘biomimicry’, ‘bionics’, and bio-everything seep into our daily lives with little to no acknowledgement. From solar panels to wind turbines to compostable coffee cups to highly efficient structures and building materials, everything we categorize as “sustainable” has its’ origin in efficiencies already built into natural processes.
Enter my ‘ah-ha’ moment. Aquaponics: a closed, recirculating system, that under the right conditions produces food with little inputs and zero waste. Sounds too good to be true? In some ways it is because aquaponics is not a perfect system but it has proven it self over thousands of years of application. The beauty is that it harnesses the power of a natural system and only requires intervention when that system becomes disrupted.
After some free time (read: an uncomfortable stretch of unemployment), research, and a little extra money and ambition, I built my own aquaponic garden, housed in a greenhouse in my backyard.
So what is aquaponics? Simply, it is a method of food production that cultivates fish and plants together in a fabricated, recirculating ecosystem, utilizing natural bacteria cycles to convert fish waste to plant nutrients. It captures all of the wonderful parts of hydroponics (the raising of plants in a water-based medium) and aquaculture (the raising of fish for harvest) and tosses away many of the pitfalls (waste, artificial inputs, space). By doing so, it serves as a model of sustainable food production by following these simple principles:
- The waste products of one biological system serve as nutrients for a second biological system.
- The integration of fish and plants results in a polyculture that increases diversity and yields multiple products.
- Water is re-used through biological filtration and recirculation.
- Local food production provides access to healthy food and enhances the local economy.
Furthermore, aquaponics uses less physical space than conventional agriculture, uses less water and energy and produces less waste than conventional terrestrial-based aquaculture, and uses no chemical inputs while turning yields over faster with a higher nutritional content compared to modern agriculture.
By no means a ‘silver bullet’ solution to our modern food dilemma, aquaponics does achieve more bounty with less resources by harvesting fish and vegetables together. As a result (and despite the fact that you probably haven’t even heard the term ‘aquaponic’ before), this method food production will likely become a crucial piece in feeding the worlds growing population all by replicating what nature already does.
In the year and half that I have been actively raising fish and vegetables in my own fabricated gardens, I’ve harvested 30 pounds of fish and well over 250 pounds of vegetables. It has taught me to cherish the food I grow, think about my food selection choices, and value local produce, It has taught me botany, biology, chemistry, and ecology. And it has taught me how to grow my own food with no prior knowledge upon how to do so…. all by letting nature be the engineer.