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Sustainable Seafood Businesses Tackle Food Deserts with an Ancient Farming Technique

by Artisticco LLC
by Artisticco LLC

One of the most interesting trends to emerge from the Fish 2.0 business competition is the increasing use of aquaponics, which combines fish farming (aquaculture) with growing plants in water (hydroponics). This is nothing new—people have been practicing aquaponics for centuries, in the Aztecs’ floating crop islands, the rice paddies of Asia and elsewhere. What’s different now is that entrepreneurs are developing technologies and business models for commercial-scale aquaponics farms serving communities with limited access to locally grown fish and vegetables.

This is exciting because many parts of the world—in developed and developing countries—don’t have enough fresh seafood and produce, which are essential to good nutrition. Aquaponics farms deliver produce in bountiful amounts, plus seafood in growing volumes, and they can do it with far less environmental impact than dry-land farms. In fact, aquaponics is a model of simplicity and efficiency.

Here’s how it works: The fish—most commonly tilapia or a hybrid bass—grow in their own tank, nourished by fish feed. The water carrying their nutrient-rich waste then gets pumped to an adjacent bed of floating produce, such as basil and other herbs, tomatoes, head lettuce and salad greens. As the produce absorbs the nutrients through its roots, it naturally filters and cleanses the water, which then recirculates back to the fish tank.

This almost closed-loop system produces dramatically higher produce yields than dry-land farming, while using 95 percent less water (aquaponics farms have minimal water loss other than through evaporation) and just one-tenth of the land. When properly set up, aquaponics farms also use less energy, generate their own natural fertilizer, recycle their own waste, and require no harmful antibiotics or pesticides. And because they can be located near key distribution and transportation hubs, or even on grocery store rooftops, they can cut down the food miles between producers and consumers.

The social benefits are just as compelling as the environmental advantages. Aquaponics farms work well in places with land and resource constraints, such as

Photo by D. Nithisakunman
Photo by D. Nithisakunman

urban areas and deserts, and in locations where people have limited diets and rely on imports. The spread of aquaponics means more access to fresh, farm-to-table food for more people, and a whole new set of job opportunities as well.

A couple of our Fish 2.0 finalists illustrate the potential. In Hawai’i, almost all food (90 percent) is imported, creating an unsustainable dependence on air and sea shipping from the mainland. Blue Farms Hawai’i hopes to start tipping that balance with a patented aquaponics technology that’s been tested in Australia. The company plans to use this system to bring locally grown fish and produce to retailers throughout Hawai’i.

Oceans away, in London, GrowUp Urban Farms is delivering fresh food to restaurants and hotels and employing local youths with a commercial-scale aquaponics farm that has a very small footprint . The company plans to expand to other cities throughout the UK, where the supply of fresh local fish and produce is not meeting demand.

All of this good news may raise the question, if aquaponics is so great, why isn’t it happening everywhere? The biggest challenge today seems to be transitioning from the smaller-scale, produce-focused operations that currently predominate to commercial-scale farms with improved seafood and produce yields.

According to Tom Losordo, principal scientist and chief engineer for Minnesota–based Pentair, profitability at the larger scale has so far proved elusive in part because farms have relied on insufficient or sub-par aquaponics systems and focused on lower-value fish as a sideline to produce, rather than on a business model based on growing produce together with seafood that can fetch a healthy market price. We also need to find ways to build aquaponics systems that use less real estate, improve system efficiencies at higher volumes, and educate retail and restaurant customers on the benefits of aquaponics.

by Konrad Mostert
by Konrad Mostert

The good news is that the benefits outweigh the challenges. Emerging businesses are opening up promising pathways to making aquaponics profitable at a commercial scale, which could make real difference in reducing food deserts and creating jobs where few other options exist.

Aquaponics is a proven approach centuries in the making—with 21st-century upgrades, this time-honored technique has enormous potential to contribute to long-term sustainable food cultivation and improved nutrition for people around the world.

For a deeper dive into the business and technology of aquaponics, see the Fish 2.0 Market Report: Aquaponics.