Producing sustainable food with aquaponics


Food production is not sustainable (1). Agriculture uses 38% of the world’s total land area and is responsible for 70% of global freshwater consumption. This has prompted some commentators to argue that in order to promote sustainability we need to change how we behave. Other experts are more focused on technological innovations, such as aquaponics. But first, let’s examine the impact of lifestyle changes.



Less meat and fewer kids

We need to make more eco-friendly choices, such as reducing our meat consumption (2) or having fewer kids (3). Or not having any kids at all (4). This is especially pertinent in countries that use up a lot of resources (5). An American kid is much more taxing on the environment than, say, a Bangladeshi kid.

Research suggests that global warming is accelerating (6). The most likely future climate scenario could be catastrophic (7). Which means that everybody (particularly those in the West) need to start having smaller families (or no families) immediately. And we all need to stop consuming so much beef.

The evidence is available. The urgency is present. But it’s perhaps too optimistic to rely on a collective, concerted move towards smaller families or veganism. It may very well be the case that we’re having fewer kids (8) or more people are becoming vegan (9). However, not enough people are making these decisions to put the brakes on climate change.

It’s also unlikely that a widespread adoption of China’s one-child policy will be embraced. And we’re not going to see slaughterhouses be made illegal anytime soon. What this means, though, is that we should be realistic about the solutions we come up with. Indeed, technological advances could provide the answer. One promising agricultural technique is aquaponics.



Image credit: Wikipedia


What is aquaponics?

Aquaponics refers to a system that combines conventional aquaculture (raising aquatic animals such as snails, fish, crayfish or prawns in tanks) with hydroponics (cultivating plants in water) in a symbiotic environment.

In conventional aquaculture, excretions from the animals being raised can accumulate, increasing toxicity. But in an aquaponic system, water breaks down the animals’ excretions into nitrates and nitrites, which are nutrients for the plants. Also, the fish eat the plants, so there’s no need to buy food for the fish.


Sustainable food

Besides being symbiotic, it is a system of growing food that is touted as being highly sustainable. For example, it was mentioned earlier how modern agriculture uses up a lot of freshwater. Tony Abuta, founder of Amsha Africa Foundation (10), says:


“Water is a precious commodity in developing nations, and because the majority of the water used is recycled through the aquaponics system, significantly less water is consumed than in traditional farming.” (11)


On the other hand, it is worth pointing out the weaknesses of aquaponics, at least for developing countries. For example, the entire system runs on electricity, so it could prove to be quite expensive. In addition, rural communities would have to be supported in training in aquaponics. If you withdraw technical support, then it simply won’t work.

Yet in spite of these potential setbacks, aquaponics is still more cost-effective than traditional farming. And one of the great practical benefits of aquaponics is that fish and plants can be produced pretty much anywhere (12). No fertilisers, pesticides or herbicides are used, which eliminates the associated health concerns.

But in terms of the discussion on sustainability, aquaponics is a highly attractive system because it produces nutritious food using minimal amounts of fossil fuels (which are the main contributing factor of climate change, 13). There are still sustainability challenges, of course, but by reducing water use and waste, aquaponics presents itself as a viable way to grow sustainable food in the future (14).


food scarcity


About the author: Sam Woolfe @samwoolfe


I’m currently a Writer at The Canary, covering issues relating to the food industry, drugs, health, well-being and nutrition. I’m also a Blogger for Inspiring Interns, where I offer careers advice for graduates. If you have a story you want me to cover, drop me a message on Twitter (@samwoolfe). You can also check out my travel blog ( and personal blog ( to read my articles on philosophy, psychology, and more opinion-related content.








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