You might think that the concept of sustainable agriculture is a little bit fishy. And we’re here to tell you: You’re absolutely right!
At least when it comes to aquaponics.
Aquaponics is often confused with its more well-known cousin, hydroponics. But the systems actually describe two very different ways of growing food.
While “hydroponic” essentially equates to “soil-free,” meaning crops are fed exclusively from a manmade mixture of nutrient-enhanced water, aquaponics relies on a much more inclusive mix of what the water naturally has to offer.
And that goes right down to the fish.
In fact, what fish can do is an essential component of an aquaponics system.
The concept itself hinges on many of the same closed-loop ideals that underpin sustainable agriculture—including turning waste into resources and building multi-functioning facets into the design—but it all takes place underwater.
Plants in an aquaponics system are also technically grown soil-free, but rather than getting a manmade mix of nutrients, they’re fed from the naturally-occurring good stuff in the water—including fish-provided fertilizer!
As you might imagine, aquaponics systems take place in large tanks full of water. Plants are held down by gravel or other non-soil materials. Any number of fish also live inside the tank.
But a well-planned aquaponics system is much more than your average aquarium.
The system actually represents a nearly-perfectly balanced ecosystem: Fish are fed regular fish food, but their waste is used to add vital nutrients—and a pH balance—to the water. The plants, in turn, act as filters for the water, keeping the environment clean for the fish. And in the meantime, a bevy of bacteria and other microbes blossom between the plants, eating the fish waste and converting the substances into perfectly good plant food.
Even better: The system can be used to grow both fish and plants, and farmers often use aquaponics systems to do just that.
Nearly all aquaponics systems utilize fresh water, so not just any kind of fish will thrive in the environment.
Some of the most popular types of fish grown in aquaponics systems include tilapia and barramundi, since the species tend to grow quickly and have a better tolerance for different types of water conditions.
Trout are also often used, as they can handle water at much lower temperatures than many other fresh-water fish.
And shrimp and even snails can also be included in an aquaponics system, with the animals all eating regular pet store fish food or more organic options like water lettuce or duckweed.
While aquaponics systems are pretty efficient and overall awesome ways to grow food, not every type of crop is appropriate for this design.
Plants that tend to thrive in aquaponics systems typically don’t need heavy nutritional input. And those that thrive on more acidic water should also be avoided, since the precise measure of pH is a crucial aspect of an aquaponics system.
Still, those plants that can grow in the system seem to thrive in one. Popular aquaponics-grown crops include cucumbers, cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, tomatoes, and many different types of beans.
There’s a number of benefits to this unique farming technique—even outside of its more-obvious sustainable growing principals.
Since aquaponics systems represent a closed loop, the water used can be infinitely recycled, allowing the system to use less water overall than most other type of agriculture techniques. (Some research has shown that aquaponics systems use as little as one-tenth the amount of water of soil-based gardens.)
Since everything is taking place in the water—and constructed in such a delicate balance—aquaponics systems also don’t utilize any pesticides or outside chemicals. And since there’s no soil being used, it eliminates the possibility of soil-borne illness.
Plus, thanks to its unique growing environment, an aquaponics system can take up substantially less room than your garden-variety garden.
It’s amazing the things that can be accomplished by just adding water!