Technology & Innovation / April 15, 2020

Can Aquaponics Strengthen the Food Supply?

As COVID-19 puts pressure on food supply chains, innovators are racking their brains to find ways to increase the efficiency of agricultural systems. No matter what type of agricultural activity you do, whether you produce vegetables, dairy, or poultry, a self-sustained system is every farmer’s dream. It would be revolutionary to produce mass quantities of goods in exchange for a small investment of time. But there is no such thing in the real world – so far. Fortunately, systems are being developed that bring a ray of enthusiasm to the idea of self-sustaining agriculture.

Aquaponics is one of them. This clever combination of fish farming and hydroponics promises to turn the disadvantages of the two into a strength. The key to the system is to cycle water from the fish tanks through biofilters and plant beds. This creates a semi-closed system that doesn’t need chemical fertilizers. In addition, it has shown to be beneficial for poor communities.

In the US, the industry is flourishing. Aquaponics businesses have made more than $500 million in annual revenues, and some have even obtained the USDA organic certification. In 2018 the global market size was valued at around $630 million, with North America having a share of more than 40%. Overseas, Australia is one of the countries that is showing great interest in developing aquaponics.

Nonetheless, there are many challenges for aquaculture. According to Eric Mialhe, PhD., the scientific director of Inca Biotech, one of Peru’s leading biotechnology businesses, “Aquaponics cannot be totally empirical, (nor) too variable. There is the need to include biotechnology to monitor crop associated systems”. He says that its key to have, “young researchers with a strong background in agronomy and biotechnology.” These will be responsible for, “creating pilot units and educating local communities.”

Research backs up Eric statements, and shows that one of the biggest challenges for poor communities is the need for more information and education. Other challenges are the high initial cost and making the business profitable. He says that it is important to popularize aquaponics, “using experts with a social and ecological approach”.

This explains why he has dedicated his career to developing biotechnology in countries like Panamá, Ecuador and Perú. His most recent effort is “a big project that involves 140 families (in Suyana, Perú)”. This project will involve agroforestry and fish farming, and will give 20% ownership to the communities. Also, a doctorate is being currently developed with Universidad de Tumbes, to extend their masters program in Biotechnology.

Today, we’ve seen the massive impact of COVID-19 on the economy. He says that “This is just one drop of water compared to the (future) financial crisis”, but is also “an immense opportunity” because now we “have the best biotechnology strategies, developed in the last 20 years, that will help us propel these technologies”. As an example, he mentions projects on the coast of Peru that “produce 300 kg of shrimp per month”, and can be complemented with seashell farming. Meanwhile, in the Andes region, hydroponics projects mix trout fishing with vegetables.

It is worth looking into the challenges and potentials of new technologies, especially in these times. Aquaponics could help poor communities, with the aid of experts and researchers, and could become very profitable businesses. With a growing market, supported by an increasing number of enthusiasts, there could be massive opportunities ahead.

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