Aquaponics – the technology of the future closer than we think

Akwaponika - technologia przyszłości bliżej niż nam się wydaje

Sustainable development and the need to conserve water resources are forcing us to look for new technologies. This also applies to agriculture and the food economy, which are highly dependent on water on the one hand and consume significant amounts of it on the other. Contrary to appearances, the implementation of innovative technologies is not at all as far away as we might think. I discuss how aquaponics can help us solve food problems, especially in cities, with Ms. Catherine Pala, biotechnologist and originator of the Urban Aquaponic Farm project.

Marta Saracyn: We are living in quite interesting times at the moment, where very many things are changing. We are paying increasing attention to how we use natural resources. This includes agriculture and food production. One way to reduce water or land consumption is aquaponics. What is it and what benefits does it bring us?

Catherine Pala: Indeed, these trends you mentioned have accelerated a lot in the last two, three, four years and have shown the vulnerability of our society to lack of water or lack of modern food production methods in general. It has long been known that intensive agriculture greatly degrades nature. It takes land and pollutes the environment. Admittedly, much has already been done to improve and reduce the amount of pesticides, antibiotics and herbicides we use there, but all this is not enough.

In recent years, COVID and the war in Ukraine have shown us that long supply chains are a very big problem in food transportation. Interrupting them can contribute to the fact that we will experience deficiencies. This applies less to rich Europe and more to poor countries that import food in significant quantities. Aquaponics may be the solution to this difficult situation. Especially where water shortages translate into food shortages.

Aquaponics is a system that produces aquatic animals and plants simultaneously. It is a largely closed system. Until now, this technique has been seen more as a hobby, as a curiosity that you can set up for yourself at home. In contrast, it was not treated as a serious food industry. We want to change that.

In the most general terms, aquaponics involves combining a tank with aquatic animals with a module for growing plants into a closed system. Let’s imagine that we are raising fish (may be other aquatic animals) in a tank. We feed them, and they metabolize the food and excrete it. Rich in nitrogen and phosphorus compounds, the feces pass into the plant module and fertilize the plants. The crop does not need to be chemically stimulated. Well, almost not necessary. There are no perfect systems and sometimes it is necessary to provide a minimum amount of fertilizer.

In aquaponics, we minimize the need to add external nutrients to plants. Those from water meet most needs. Plants take biogenes from the water, which then flows through a system of mechanical and biological filters and cleanly returns to the tanks with the animals. In an ideal system, we have a closed system in which water circulates, and we only provide food for the animals. We can produce it from plants that grow in the system or their remains.

In aquaponics, we produce food of both animal and plant origin. Of course, this is a very simplified description. It is not a perpetual motion machine. There are very many problems, if only of an energy nature. In addition to the water evaporation, there are also losses associated with handling filters and converting waste to biomass. So we have water losses that need to be replenished. At the same time, it is essential to point out that we reduce water consumption by 90%, because so much circulates all the time. We calculated that we are losing only 10%. This is a very large savings compared to traditional agriculture.

M.S: In March, you installed the first AquaFarm. Can aquaponics already begin to be seen as a solution to urban food supply problems? What is its performance? How many people can be fed thanks to such a farm you have launched in Wroclaw?

K.P: We don’t know that yet, because that is the subject of the project, which is still in the implementation phase. To answer such questions, we are currently studying two farms. One just in Wroclaw, the other in Oslo. Our work is funded by the Polish-Norwegian fund within the USAGE project. I hope that in the near future we will be able to get answers to the questions you have raised. In addition, these farms will be provided with a so-called green roof to collect rainwater naturally. The roof is also supposed to purify it and add it to the reservoirs to supplement losses.

We are exploring how profitable aquaponics is, as it has so far been seen as either a hobby or an industrial-scale solution. We want to investigate whether small container farms like those in Wroclaw and Oslo will work out in terms of business. First, we test what kind of performance they will have. Second, what species should we grow in such systems to attract the interest of the local community, including restaurateurs. Third, we assess what the costs are for setting up and running such a farm, what to do to optimize it in terms of energy, production and water savings. We look at where container farms can stand, how to install them, what documents are needed to grow just such food. Many different aspects are emerging that have not been considered at all until now.

We want to recognize all this and prepare a guide to urban aquaponics. The plan is to show our results, which can serve small and medium-sized enterprises in the future. Based on our experience, such entities will be able to put up farms as a form of their own business. A system of small, dispersed facilities in the city is the direction we want to develop. We would like to scale the Wroclaw aquafarm so that similar facilities could be built, for example, in parking lots next to supermarkets, in residential areas. They would then be easily accessible to a wider range of customers. It is also possible to deliver products directly to restaurants, but this is a different business model, which of course also requires different marketing and a slightly different product portfolio. There are very many possibilities, however, since no one has done so far, we want to explore all these aspects to facilitate the implementation of aquaponics in the market.

M.S: For the past two years, the idea of 3W, or water, carbon and hydrogen, has been gaining momentum in Poland, also pointing to synergies between these elements. I am curious if you see a connection between aquaponics and this idea.

K.P.: We are already part of the 3W idea, which says that carbon, water and hydrogen, as components of a somewhat broader whole, are extremely important. We focused on water and its closed loop. On the other hand, if we add carbon as an element with applications in sensory technologies for aquafarm sensing, and hydrogen as a green energy source, aquaponics can combine all the elements of the 3W idea.

M.S: What you are talking about sounds a bit like technology from the distant future. However, in Wroclaw, we see that this is already happening. In what perspective can we expect the results of the project and the commercialization of aquafarm? Asking directly, when will we see an aquaponic vegetable and fish store under the block?

K.P.: I’m counting on the fact that this perspective will be not long – one and a half, two years at most. Our project ends next April. By then we will already have the results and will be trying to commercialize aquaponics. I make no secret of the fact that this is a very cool topic and we are already seeing a lot of interest from entrepreneurs. At the opening of the farm, one restaurateur declared that he would like to have one at his restaurant. He directly asked to help him do something like this. Of course, we are eager, so we can start commercialization even before the end of the project. Realistically, I see that in a year’s time we will be able to touch this technology and actually buy this type of product. They probably won’t be perfect yet, but that’s not the point. We will come to optimization over time, but it is important that these solutions are implemented.

M.S.: So the future is just around the corner.

K.P.: I will still add an interesting fact. We are going to Norway in the near future because we want to establish interregional cooperation on aquaponics and aquaculture. We intend to develop the aquaculture industry in Poland by drawing on the experience of Scandinavian companies.

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