Roman Gaus, an entrepreneur in aquaponics, has written an article about his journey from curiosity to trailblazing, ending up where he is now, running (among other farms) a farm on a rooftop in Switzerland. The article is called The Farming Technique That Could Revolutionize the Way We Eat.
Aquaponics is a method of combined fish and vegetable farming that requires no soil. The farmer cultivates freshwater fish (aquaculture) and plants (hydroponics) in a recirculating water system that exchanges nutrients between the two. Wastewater from the fish serves as organic fertilizer for the plants, while the plants clean the water of fish feces and urine. The net result: a 90 percent reduction in freshwater use compared with conventional fish farming, and a significant reduction in added nutrients such as fossil fertilizers. The system can be run without pesticides and, because the fish environment is spacious and clean, without antibiotics.
The above is a good summary of what aquaponics entails, and highlights one of the huge advantages of the method that's not really dealt with in this article: It's a way to mass-produce food that might be able to replace the environmentally damaging fertilizers that are necessary to produce enough food to keep all the people currently on earth still-alive. (Hank Green talks about this near the end of his SciShow video, Fritz Haber: Great Minds.)
To test and prove my idea, I investigated urban-farm options and came across a French design for a 20-foot cargo ship container with a greenhouse module built on top. It looked like it could house an aquaponics system. The container was relatively small and portable — the size of two parking spaces — and could be easily toured in public places: in front of schools, supermarkets, or parking lots. All it required were electrical and water hookups. I liked the ruggedness of the cargo container combined with the leafy beauty of cultivation. The UrbanFarmers Box was born.
We are building a 2,700-square-foot greenhouse farm on a rooftop in Basel, Switzerland. We started selling fresh produce to five local restaurants in January 2013, just six months after construction started. This roof-garden-on-steroids should yield more than five tons of fresh vegetables and nearly a ton of fish per year, feeding a local community of 100 people year-round.
Gaus also brings up one of the other cool qualities of aquaponics: the inherent bias towards moderation and balance. It might be a little bit aggressively optimistic to say, but I imagine if the majority of our food was produced in a process that required excruciating attention to a complex balance, we might generally be forced to be a little less all-or-nothing as a civilization.
Amid the excitement, however, we must remember that commercial-scale aquaponics is a delicate technology requiring a sensitive balance between the cultivation of fish and vegetables. You cannot maximize yields for either part without creating problems. Maintaining food safety and quality in these systems is critical. Going forward, it will take time, ingenuity, and significant investment to perfect our methods, become profitable, and make an impact.
Check out the whole article -- it's really good, and it's great to hear about examples of aquaponics farms having direct success in real life. My fingers are crossed that this is the future of food in America. (And, hey. My town just passed a ballot measure to allow the construction of casinos. Maybe I can try and persuade someone running a casino that organic, aquaponic fresh fish and vegetables would be a good novelty draw for people who feel a bit morally queasy about gambling.)