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Sustainable Seafood

Sustainable Fish Farming: Global-Scale Aquaculture in the Big City


Editor’s note: This is the third post in a three-part series on sustainable fish farming startups. In case you missed it, you can read the first post here and the second post here.

In the first two posts of this series, we introduced Kampachi Farms, an open-ocean mariculture startup on the Big Island of Hawaii co-founded by Neil Sims and Michael Bullock. When their mariculture fishery, the Valella project, got started in early 2012, the future of aquaculture and mariculture was uncertain, as a lawsuit brought by Food and Water Watch against the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) pertaining to aquaculture was wending its way through court. The suit brought the founders of Valella into a complicated area that spanned legislation, the role of governments and NGOs, and how to best help environmental groups understand mariculture.

When I recently spoke to Sims for a follow-up interview, he was preparing to travel to the Hague to participate in the Global Ocean Action Summit for Blue Development.

“This is looking at the way that we can grow marine industries in a scalable, responsible manner. Work to feed the planet, work to heal the oceans from the depredation that we’ve put upon her and harness the energy of commercial development to do that.”

From the basic research, Sims and his colleagues began way back with Kona Blue Water Farms, to the Velella test projects (beta and gamma) and on to global operations for ocean mariculture, this is what is near and dear to Sims heart -- finding ways to feed a hungry planet while healing a depleted ocean.

An ocean and a continent away, in New York City, the mission is the same, just replace the blue Pacific with the rooftop of a Manhattan ironworks factory.

Edenworks: Building an inner-city Garden of Eden

Jason Green began his career in neuroscience. But curiosity and a sense of higher purpose got him thinking about urban food systems, the idea of "food deserts” and how these current systems are failing these pockets of malnutrition and hunger, while lacking the resilience to withstand the pressures of climate change and population growth.

That's a lot to think about, so Green didn't give up his day job right away.

“My background is in bioengineering and neuroscience," says Green, founder of Edenworks, an aquaponics startup in New York City. "I was doing my thing in a neuroscience lab at Albert Einstein (College of Medicine).”  About two years ago Green started tinkering with aquaponics on the weekends, designing his own consumer aquaponic farm in his apartment.

“I got aphids and fungus and all sorts of stuff," laughs Green. "I was like 'there’s got to be a better way!’ So I started looking into hydroponics and aeroponics and eventually settled on aquaponics. I realized there was no easy consumer solution for an aquaponics system."

Green launched Edenworks one year ago with a $20,000 grant from New York University's Green Grant Program. Now nearing completion of the 1,000-square-foot flagship farm, Edenworks sits on the top floor of a commercial ironworks in New York City.

New aquaponics: Quantifying the ecosystem

Aquaponics isn’t a new technology. As far back as 1000 B.C. (give or take). Chinese farmers discovered that they could increase the yield of their rice paddies when they let fish swim around and fertilize them with their waste.

“How do we take that very old technology, that was reliant on existing ecology, and create ecosystems to grow food that are separate from the land,” says Green. “There are more than 7 billion of us, 9 billion by 2050. We can’t rely on the land to produce our food. So the choices are, you know. either eugenics, mass starvation or figuring out how to feed ourselves from the cities.”

It is from the land, and the rich soil that supports the nutritious and delicious food we eat, that Green takes an important lesson for Edenworks. "Aquaponics, and especially hydroponics, really haven’t been thinking about how to create the ideal ecology. Delicious food doesn’t come from fertilizer poured on barren topsoil.”

It’s this ecosystem of rich, highly organic soil that Green and his team are working to recreate at Edenworks. “We’re trying to replicate all the richness of soil by figuring out the chemistry that we need to create delicious, living food." A network of sensors continually monitor the environmental chemistry of the farm, Green explains. When harvested, the food is tasted, going through a regime by Edenworks' head-of-product, Sam Yoo, a professional chef.

“We’ve basically taken his palette, what he looks for as a chef … and quantified that.” Using machine algorithms they can then correlate the chemistry to “the things we care about,” Green says, such as nutritional density, flavor and texture.

The task, explains Green is “figuring out how to optimize aquaponics ecosystems that are separate from [land-based] ecology,” but still mimic the best topsoil to produce the tastiest, most nutritious food.

“What we’re building here [at Edenworks] is a lab,” Green says. "We’re going to be selling food from it, but it’s really a lab. It’s a place for us to learn and experiment."

Modular and scalable

"What Edenworks is doing a little bit differently is that we combine aquaponics with vertical design and vertical farming. The goal is to create a model here that we can scale elsewhere.”

Edenworks is also uses a passive solar design. “We use passive solar greenhouses, we don’t use any kind of LEDs, fluorescent or high-pressure sodium or anything like that.” Based on solar radiometry testing, Green says they can stack the vertical greenhouse section six-high, or 10 feet at the top module, with plenty of sun for the entire system.

The vertical design means Edenworks can effectively grow six times the produce for the same square footage of conventional systems, while using 90 percent less water and energy than traditional agri-farming.

Fish and produce

“We design, build and operate the farms and then sell produce and seafood directly to restaurants and business customers. We’d like to get to the scale where we’re selling directly to grocery stores, especially for the seafood because restaurants don’t really want the Tilapia, but even Whole Foods, I just saw Tilapia there for $12 a pound. So certainly it’s something that people eat.”

Tilapia is one of the most common fish species used for both fish and aquaponics farming, and it is the principal fish stock for Edenfarms, along with catfish and prawns.

“The prawn is really interesting,” Green says. “They go for $15 a pound as opposed to anywhere from $8 to $12 a pound for Tilapia and Catfish.”

“Tilapia are perfectly happy with poor water conditions, you can stock them very densely … they’re really ideal for aquaculture.” You're much more likely to find shrimp, tuna or salmon on a restaurant menu than Tilapia. Nonetheless, Tilapia is produced in more than 100 countries and ranks fourth -- behind those species just mentioned -- as the most-consumed seafood globally, according to the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch. But only 5 percent of Tilapia is farmed in the U.S.; the rest is imported.

Creating a new zeitgeist

The long-term vision for Green is to integrate the Edenworks model of food production into building design and development.

“What is unique about Edenworks is the synergistic and whole systems approach,” Green says. “When you put a farm on a rooftop, you basically create this insulating layer.”

The idea is to create not only a solution for local food production but to other building infrastructure challenges as well.

“Maybe even preconditioning your air for the building. You oxygenate it, you filter it, you temper it before you push it into the building.

Ultimately designing buildings that take into consideration the waste management of the building, the energy needs, the food needs, all integrated into these closed-loop ecosystems."

As the idea grows and hopefully scales across rooftops and cities, all these systems and data can be remotely monitored by a web app, creating a distributed network of farms.

“I really see it as a very scalable solution,” Green says. “The goal for us is to be physically and digitally scalable...  you have to create a new zeitgeist. You can’t expect that if something is unfamiliar that it’s going to become the way things are. It has to be obvious in order for it to be the way things are.”

Wait-and-see attitude

Many may still have a cautious, wait-and-see approach to what Edenworks is doing, but when prospective partners grasp the potential of putting “Eden" on their roof, Green says that developers and building managers often tell him, based on the projected increase in building efficiency, that they are more than willing to provide the space rent-free. The increased energy efficiency is the rent.

“By creating this huge insulating layer on the roof, we think that we can increase the HVAC efficiency by about 30 percent. We exist in their space, and they see a return.”

The vertical, passive-solar aquaponics farm built on the Edenworks model provides tasty, nutritious, chemical-free fish and produce to local markets. Scaled through cities across the northeast and eventually the entire country, a distributed network of urban aquaponics farms can supply economical, sustainably-grown food where it is needed most.

Resistance to change

This isn’t to say that Edenworks doesn’t face an uphill climb in public perception, just as with Sims. Green reels off criticisms he hears from naysayers on almost a daily basis. But, like Sims, he takes the criticism head-on and offers solutions to try instead of reasons to maintain an unsustainable status quo. Building scalable, modular, and efficient passive-solar aquaponics farms that integrate into building infrastructure, create "ecologies" that mimic rich soils, and experiment with different fish species to supply nutritious animal protein - all these ideas answer these critics and ask only that these new ideas be given a change to grow.

"There is resistance to every great innovation,” says Green. Echoing Sims' experience, Green says “Even exploring new ideas somehow puts them at risk, that somehow trying something new exposes them to risk of harm or something. I think that people only recently have started thinking about food and energy as problems, that for so long, with the Jevons Paradox has been ignored. We’ve always just tried to do more with less. You make more efficient systems and what ends up happening? Like the Jevons Paradox says, the more efficient you get the more resources you use. And people forgot about that for a really long time.”

“And I think also the emphasis has been for so long on efficiency and not quality. You can think about that in terms of energy, you can think about that in terms of food-like products over food. It’s more attractive to buy something like a Weight Watchers frozen dinner filled with chemicals than just to buy fresh vegetables, and have an equally caloric dinner, but one is healthy and the other is synthetic - and probably carcinogenic.”

Problems like this have plagued humanity for the last hundred years, but figuring “whole systems” approaches to address them are only now are gaining traction. “With the confluence of climate change, peak oil, peak coal, even peak water, people are trying to think about [these issues] in a holistic way.”

Proving the idea

Will it work? Of course it’s too soon to tell. But there doesn’t seem to be any reason for not allowing Green and his colleagues to build out the proof-of-concept lab, experiment and find out what works and what doesn’t.

That goes for Kampachi Farms as well. Sims and his colleagues have helped establish the science, the law and the concept. Overcoming public perception of farmed fish and resistance to eating produce grown in a warehouse can be an uphill battle.

Sims feels that he’s been portrayed as being on the “wrong side of the law" by many environmentalists. But, as he points out, the law is settled. And now so is the science.

What is important to Sims, Green and many other passionate and dedicated people like them, is being on the right side of history. Meeting the challenges dead-on, answering their critics, and working to answer the ultimate question of which we began: how to feed seven, then soon nine, then eleven billion people, without wrecking the planet.

Supporting responsible fish farming and modern aguaponics to help feed the billions of people that increasingly rely on it is the right side of history.

To that point Sims sums it up succinctly:

“… because if you want them to eat beef, the planet is screwed.”

Image credit: Flickr/deanmeyers

Read the rest of Startups in Sustainable Fish Farming: 

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Tom is the founder, editor, and publisher of GlobalWarmingisReal.com and the TDS Environmental Media Network. He has been a contributor for Triple Pundit since 2007. Tom has also written for Slate, Earth911, the Pepsico Foundation, Cleantechnia, Planetsave, and many other sustainability-focused publications. He is a member of the Society of Environmental Journalists

Read more stories by Thomas Schueneman