Aquaponics: An in-depth Analysis
Created on 18 May 2022
Wraps up in 5 Min
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Updated on 09 Sep 2022
In a fight of vegetarianism vs non-vegetarianism, the pseudo intellectuals often seem to forget that it’s humans and their growing greed that’s the real problem. Both diets are equally unsustainable, but one of the sides gets an unfair “moral” advantage.
Our story dates back to 1000 AD. There was a freshwater lake in central Mexico called Lake Tenochtitlan. Hills and marshes surrounded it. The Aztec Indians dwelling there did not have much room to grow food. They made rafts, stuffed them with soil from the lake floor, planted them with seeds, floated them on Lake Tenochtitlan and called them ‘Chinampas’. In the 21st century, Chinampas or ‘The Floating Gardens of Mexico’ are picking up steam again, this time around as ‘Aquaponics’.
What is Aquaponics?
Aquaponics = Aquaculture + Hydroponics.
Aquaculture is the cultivation and harvesting of aquatic plants and animals like algae, fish, molluscs, etc. Hydroponics, also called soilless culture, cultivates plants in nutrient-rich water. Aquaponics is the marriage between aquaculture and hydroponics. This establishes a symbiotic relationship between the fish and the plants.
The aquaponic process begins with feeding the fish, which release ammonia-containing excreta. Bacteria are used to break down ammonia into nitrates which act as natural fertilisers. After the nitrates have been absorbed, the clean water is pumped back into the fish tank. Aquaponics can help grow a massive variety of produce, from vegetables and fruits to flowers and herbs.
Interesting fact: Aquaponics as a ray of hope in Gaza
The Gaza Strip of Palestine is one of the most volatile regions globally, forever at war and riddled with bad politics. The Oslo Agreement, signed in 1993, prohibited Palestinians from digging wells on their land. Combine this with scanty rainfall, and their food security is severely compromised. Between 2010 and 2013, the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) of the United Nations set up aquaponic systems on the rooftops of the residents of Gaza City. The food-insecure female-headed households were given special consideration. It showed positive results, food consumption increased, and livelihoods became more self-reliant.
In 2015, the EU released “Ten technologies which could change our lives”. At number 8 was aquaponic farming. It read, “aquaponics can be used as a solution for developing innovative and sustainable food sources, can shorten supply chains, and could improve food security and food systems resilience”. The benefits of aquaponic farming are multiple - for the farmer-entrepreneur, the environment, and also the rest of us-
1. Aquaponic farming reduces dependence on an extensive land area as opposed to traditional farming. Some studies suggest that it needs as little as 1/8th of the land used by conventional agriculture. Aquaponics allows you to go vertical and increase production yield many times over.
2. Aquaponics does not use any chemical fertilisers or pesticides to promote plant growth. Fish waste is enough to provide the nutrition needed by plants. Since there is no soil, there are hardly any insects or pests either. Using chemicals can put the survival of the fish in jeopardy. It is a robust and natural ecosystem in itself.
3. Aquaponic farming is a zero-discharge system where water is re-circulated continuously. It uses 90% to 95% less water vis-a-vis conventional soil-based agriculture and around 40% less when compared to hydroponics.
4. It is a soilless system. Hence, it can be established in areas with infertile or no soil (Case in point Cherai village of Kerala, discussed below).
5. The aquaponic system acts as a food factory - producing food throughout the year. Compared to conventional farming, where seeds are sown at a particular time and can be harvested only during specific times. In aquaponic farming, the fish can supply the nutrients to crops throughout the year.
Made-in-India Aquaponic Start-ups
Commercial aquaponic farmers make money by selling both fish and plants. Some also teach the science and commerce of aquaculture to others through workshops or online classes to further monetise their business. Here are a few of the ‘Made in India’ aquaponic farms among the many springing up in our country
1. Landcraft Agro, Kolhapur - Mayank Gupta is an IITian turned farmer or farmpreneur, we should say. In 2018 Mayank and Lalit Jhawar started Landcraft Agro, an aquaponic farm in Kolhapur, which spans over 2 acres and gives around 200-300 kgs of harvest DAILY! They grow 40 types of vegetables and sell them under the brand name ‘Trueganic’. Next, they plan to optimise their supply chain network by getting farmers on board for contract farming.
2. Red Otter Farms, Nainital - Sprawling across 45,000 square feet in the foothills of Nainital, Red Otter Farms was started in 2017 by Anubhav Das and Srishti Mandaar. Their produce is primarily salad greens which they claim are clean inside-out. So much so that it can be eaten without washing, straight from the bag! They sell their unique salad boxes across Delhi NCR. Their clients include the likes of The Taj Hotel and Modern Bazaar.
3. Eat Neat Project, Bengaluru - Hard to believe, but Bharath Dayananda has established the Silicon Valley of India as his farmland. Eat Neat Project is an NSRCEL, IIM Bangalore’s Pre Incubated AgriTech Startup. They call themselves “the farmers of the future”. Its mission is simple - to “revolutionise the way we produce and consume food”. Eat Neat Project also provides consultancy and workshops to people who want to set up their aquaponic farms.
What are the critics saying?
Roses don’t come without thorns. Aquaponic farming is no different and comes with its own set of challenges. The initial cost of an aquaponic system is very high and demands daily maintenance and upkeep. Tuberous crops and root crops like potatoes and radish are not the most suitable for aquaponic farming. While aquaponics may help conserve water and land, its electricity consumption is massive. Water pumps need to function at all times, and the fish need to be kept at a constant temperature. The fish and plants also require continuous monitoring. Its success hinges on a robust business plan. One wrong step and the entire system collapses. Critics also question if the produce from aquaculture is as healthy as it is deemed to be.
“If there is magic on this planet, it’s contained in water”, said the great American educator and natural science writer Lorene Eiseley.
According to a study by the International Food Policy Research Institute, climate change will be responsible for a severe fall in agricultural production and disruption of food supply chains. Consequently, nearly 23% more of us, i.e. 9.06 crore Indians, will go hungry by 2030. Can the aquaponic way of farming change our grim future?
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