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How Aquaponics Makes Commercial Urban Agriculture Possible

Sustainable Management at Bard | Thursday December 26th, 2013 | 3 Comments

By Miles Crettien

Tractors ploughing vast fieldLarge-scale industrial farming is one of the most environmentally damaging practices on the planet. The world’s population is estimated to reach 10 billion people in the next 40 years, which means that humans will have to expand agricultural production of arable land to approximately 2.5 billion acres, a landmass larger than Canada, in order to grow enough food to feed the rising population. Unfortunately this amount of arable land does not exist. Eighty percent of the land that is suitable for farming is already in use (FAO and NASA). Historically, 15 percent of this land has been degraded to a non-arable state due to mismanagement (UN and FAO).

The World Health Organization estimates that 70 percent of the world population will live in urban centers by 2050. Lack of fresh, affordable food and education about how to obtain this food in low-income neighborhoods, along with other institutional barriers, are at the core of food injustice and food access issues in major metropolises around the country and worldwide.

Food and water security may be the largest issues facing human survival on this planet. We are witnessing the crippling effects of rapid climate change on food security today. The 2012 Midwest drought alone cost U.S. farmers between $18-20 billion in crop loss and substantially increased the retail prices for beef, pork, poultry, and dairy products. Projections of a 20 percent reduction of snowmelt that feeds the already over-allocated Colorado River Basin could result in 9 out of 10 deliveries of fresh water being missed by 2050, catastrophically affecting food production in an area that produces 20 percent of the United States’ agricultural products annually. Additionally, warmer weather will increase incidence of pest and disease outbreaks, and longer breeding seasons. John Sheehy at the International Rice Research Institute in Manila estimates that a 1°C rise in temperature will decrease yields of wheat, rice and corn by 10 percent. The science of climate change paints a picture of increasing food and water insecurity and the pressing need to do something about it.

However, aquaponics can be used today to alleviate these problems.

Aquaponics is an innovative agricultural method based in ecological design that limits inputs and waste through integrated multi-trophic fish and vegetable production. By using the waste stream of fish as a nutrient source for hydroponically grown plants, both can be raised in a recirculating system without the need for additional inputs such as fertilizers or pesticides. Hydroponics grows plants through a similarly efficient recirculating water based system but relies on the addition of nutrient solution to feed the plants.

Aquaphonics

Such systems cut water use

70 – 95 percent of the water used is saved through recirculating feedstock (the only water loss is due to evaporation and evapotranspiration by plants.

They decrease dependence on fertilizers and pesticides

Aquaponics produces its own nutrients through recirculation of fish waste through the system. No pesticides or fertilizers are needed. Hydroponics can operate on completely organic feedstock from compost source. No pesticides are needed.

They make much more flexible use of land

Both hydroponics and aquaponics have the capacity to grow 10 times more produce in the same footprint as terrestrial farming. Compared to soil farming they can deliver 30 percent faster time to harvest. They can be employed anywhere with suitable light, including impermeable surfaces such as rooftops and parking lots, as well on non-arable land and indoors (with light supplementation). Up to 9:1 ratio in space efficiency can be realized through vertical integration (acre’s worth of produce (44,000 sq ft) in 5,000 sq ft).

Reduces waste 

Aquaponic systems have zero discharge, as all the waste is recycled into the system. Vegetable and fish waste are composted to produce food for the fish.

Aquaponic and hydroponic technologies have the additional benefit of being well suited for vertical integration through the use of technologies such as the Vertically Oriented Hydroponic System (VOHS) developed by City Hydroponics in Newark, NJ. Vertically integrated aquaponic and hydroponic crop production offer the opportunity to maximize the growable area in a given footprint, increasing productivity by a factor of 9 compared to other existing hydroponic and aquaponic technologies. This reduces operating costs of heating, operating and/or renting controlled environment space (such as a greenhouse) while increasing yields and revenues, making such endeavors more profitable.

One company attempting to bring commercially viable urban agriculture to scale is my company, VertiCulture Farms LLC. VertiCulture utilizes vertically integrated hydroponics and aquaponics on rooftops in New York City and surrounding areas to produce a wide variety of nutrient-rich greens, herbs, fruiting crops and fish to sell to local distributors, restaurants and individuals in low-income communities.

Through the use of innovative sustainable technologies such as vertically integrated aquaponics and hydroponics in cities, we can meet growing demand for fresh fish and produce locally, not only eliminating the need for long distance transport and increasing the freshness and nutritional quality of the food we eat. We also enable communities to protect and control the food resources that they depend on directly.

Producing the food we need locally provides opportunities for job creation and civic engagement in meaningful work for urban populations world-wide. Jobs in crop management, technology, computer programming, greenhouse design/construction and entrepreneurship are a few of the training and employment opportunities that arise through the use of the technologies VertiCulture employs in the urban environment. These technologies offer integrated hands-on STEM education for children and adults through interaction with diverse biological and chemical processes, green energy and engineering, all inherent within these sustainable urban agricultural technologies.

VertiCulture and other companies who choose to promote and build commercially viable urban farms and facilities create a lasting impact for good; one that will redirect a dangerous trend in human civilization and increase an awareness of the threats we face as a species, while meeting challenges with innovative and intelligent human design.

This is my passion; it’s also my job. I’m happy to say, I love what I do.

Miles Crettien is Co-Founder of the aquaponics start-up, VertiCulture Farms LLC. based out of Brooklyn, NY. He has dedicated his career and a large part of his life to this pursuit and is committed to bringing these technologies to a grand scale. Miles is currently an MBA in Sustainability candidate at Bard College.


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  • Barton K.

    This technology makes so much sense it’s no wonder it isn’t more widely adopted. Great article. Verticulture/aquaculture can be implemented on a “small is beautiful” basis and immediately improve the standard of living of countless people. Of course, it is profoundly non-corporate and hence will run into obstacles, but as noted, it makes so much sense that it can be introduced at the community level, especially as more and more city administrations (Boston for one) are supporting urban agriculture. Can you imagine the impact in Cleveland or Detroit? Keep at it, Mr. Crettien – you might just change the world!

  • Wendy Wong

    Dead Mr. Crettien,

    I have started a system at home. the lettuce grows fast. but i have problem with the submersible pump. its flow rate decreases after a week and i have to clean it to get the covered siphon to complete the cycle.

    what kind of submersible pump do you recommend?

    wendy

  • Jerome Peloquin

    Miles et al … We’ve been in start up planning now for almost three years. Congratulations, we know how hard it is to get traction with AP (aquaponics) the main reason is the lack of a profitable operating AP model. Most are small non scalable systems with no hope of reaching commercial profitability. I moderate a Linkedin Group called: Commercial Aquaponics and have 1,500 (45% growers) from around the world. I’ve had the benefit of the advice of the best growers in the world and will be very happy to share and collaborate. We all need to work together to produce a viable economic model or no one will ever provide sufficient commercial funding.

    To answer Barton’s question it’s risk averse VC’s who do not believe we can build and operate a successful AP vertical or horizontal farm without subsidies and/or adjunct businesses like training and equipment sales (also consulting) To the best of our knowledge there has NEVER been a profitable AP farm in this country. Let’s change all that… it can be done but only if one grows high value crops and uses automation to plant and harvest. We look forward to hearing and working with you to further the future of farming, Urban Vertical Aquaponics. (Grow here, Eat here)