Is it an Aquaponics Scam? Dispelling The Myths Around Aquaponics


There are many amazing claims being made about aquaponics. But is it an aquaponics scam?

Trifecta Aquaponics FarmThere are so many benefits, that at times aquaponics may seem too good to be true. For this article, I want to dispel many of the myths and rumors I’ve come across over the years surrounding aquaponics.

Why does my opinion count? How can you be sure I am not just adding to the mythology behind aquaponics?

Well for starters, I have been doing aquaponics for 3 years now, with two years of actual commercial experience. My team and I have built and maintained just about every type of system, from my first desktop system in my Boston apartment to the backyard system at my house to the large-scale system at our farm.

Furthermore, you can rest assured that I will not embellish, hyperbolize or otherwise spread aquaponic myths because it doesn’t do anyone any good! I strongly believe that aquaponics is vital to feeding our ever expanding population. Especially as a method that does not harm the environment. Every myth, embellished story and exaggerated claim about aquaponics only hurts the chances of wide-scale adoption. In order for aquaponics to really make the impact that I know it can have, we must always tell the truth about it. The only one who benefits from an aquaponics scam is the perpetrator of that scam.

Through that framework, I present:  Aquaponics – True or False?

Aquaponics only works in the tropics, it’d be dumb to try it in the cold

Status: False!
Aquaponics Greenhouse covered in SnowThis is so crazy false, but I can see why it is a common belief. Most of the successful aquaponics farms out there are in very warm places: Florida, Texas, California, Australia, the Philippines. In fact, the longest running (to my knowledge) educational and commercial system in the world is from the University of the Virgin Islands!

However, there is a small contingent of farmers bucking that trend and bringing aquaponics to the north. There is a thriving aquaponic community in Colorado and we’re getting one started over here in Connecticut too. Plus there is the awesome stuff Dr. Shultz and Dr. Nick Savidov are doing up in Canada. They are working on some very exciting things that could help revolutionize aquaponics in cold weather climates.

Within the industry, it is often said that aquaponics works anywhere you have water and light. Just add fish and plants. So I imagine it won’t be too long before the Antarctic scientific outposts start growing their own aquaponics food. I know NASA is already planning on taking it to outer space so the limits are really only in our imaginations.

Aquaponics is the combination of aquaculture and hydroponics

Status: False.

I call this one false because I believe that this overly-simplistic description has stopped many potential aquapioneers from trying it out. Conventional aquaculture and hydroponics are both long established, complex and jargonistic subjects. This creates the false perception that aquaponics is doubly hard because it is combining two difficult subjects. On top of this, many of the practices fundamental to modern aquaculture (antibiotics, grain feed, expensive filtration) and to modern hydroponics (expensive chemicals, water changes, disconnection from nature) are eliminated in aquaponics.

Aquaculture is the farming of fish using methods similar to the modern beef, pork and poultry industries. Fish are fed grain and antibiotics and kept in totally unnatural conditions. Hydroponics is growing plants in water, without soil. Rather than using natural, organic nutrients, hydroponics typically employs chemical fertilizers not unlike those used in conventional modern agriculture. In fact, hydroponically grown plants must be “flushed” with pure water for a few days before you eat them, otherwise they taste like chemicals and not like plants. Does that sound appetizing? I don’t think so.

I think a better description of aquaponics goes something like this: aquaponics is the art of creating a sustainable ecosystem with the farming of microbes, fish and plants.

You see, it is the addition of that third vital part of the aquaponics trifecta – the microbes!

The microbes are microscopic organisms that live in the microbiome. Scientists are discovering more about the importance of the microbiome every day. We are seeing more and more probiotic yogurt shops and probiotic drinks like kombucha and kefir in our grocery stores. There is now the Human Microbiome Project to match the Human Genome Project. Just like the bacteria in our gut are vital to human health, the bacteria in our aquaponics gardens are equally vital to the health of the garden itself.

We often refer to ourselves as microbe farmers, rather than fish or produce farmers. I also personally consider myself one of the largest employers in the world, with many billions of microscopic employees working for me night and day!

Aquaponics grows 10x the produce in the same space as conventional agriculture

Status: False.. for now

This is another one that is just.. sorta false. At best it is a claim without hard data to back it up. At worst, it is an outright deception. Let me explain what I mean: aquaponics does most definitely dramatically increase yield per sq/ft over conventional agriculture and even over hydroponics. It is well known (and verified) that aquaponics can produce plants quicker, plant more densely, and grow bigger than conventional agriculture. When you are growing bigger plants, more close together and at a faster rate, you end up with some seriously awesome production numbers.

For example, the lettuce growing portion of our system is producing around 150-200 primo lettuces per week in an 8’x22’ space. Normally, a plot this size would be a single cutting of 150-200 lettuces per month in the same space.

That being said, the figure of 10x the production is tossed around the internet like crazy.  In fact, I admit to citing the figure myself over the course of my history with aquaponics. I was young and naive once too.

Then, during his keynote speech at this years Aquaponics Association conference, Dr. Charlie Shultz asked the entire room, had anyone ever seen the data to back up this claim?  No one in the industry could answer where the figure originated from, or cite any data to back it up.

From now on, I will only ever cite figures I am certain of, such as my own or those I’ve seen firsthand. Don’t fall for “aquashysters” and outrageous snake-oil salesmen. Aquaponics is absolutely amazing, that is for sure, but the industry is harmed by fraudulent and unsubstantiated claims.

Aquaponics uses 90% less water than conventional agriculture

Status: True.

This is actually maybe even too low of a figure! I believe that the 90% less figure originally comes from hydroponics.  Aquaponics uses the same or slightly more water in the initial fill-up as hydroponics. However hydroponics requires frequent water changes because after a certain period the chemical nutrients in the water become too hard and salty. These water changes are expensive and discharge chemical laden water into our waterways.

Aquaponics is a totally recirculating system, running in a closed loop. That means the water never leaves the system and is endlessly recycled from the fish to the plants to the fish again. The only water loss comes from evaporation and loss of water to the plants themselves. There are no water changes, no runoff, no pollution. In fact, the water in the aquaponics system “ages” like a fine wine or vinegar.

The beneficial bacteria in the system develop over time, creating a magnificently networked microecosystem in the water and growing media.  The longer a system runs continuously, the more effective the microbiome is at delivering nutrients and protecting from disease and insect invaders. That means less crop loss to disease and pests without chemical pesticides!

I add a touch of water to my system about once every week or two. It really is incredible how maintenance free the system is.

 Aquaponics is really complex, it’s too hard for me to do it.

Status: False

Trifecta Aquaponics EducationAquaponics is a truly advanced technology, just like an iPhone. The defining characteristics of a truly advanced technology is not that it is made from fancy microprocessors or rare earth metals. The defining characteristic of a truly advanced technology is that it is so simple to use that anyone can make it work.

Aquaponics is able to take an a total black thumb chump with no growing experience and turn him into an operational farmer (I am talking about myself and my partners here.)I have a degree in latin and philosophy, my partners majored in political science and history. We had no gardening experience prior to aquaponics.

Henry Ford was famous for surrounding himself with talent that he did not possess himself. Earlier in the article, I mentioned my billions of microscopic employees. Well, I took a lesson from Mr. Ford and hired out the gardening know-how to the microbiome in my garden! The billions of bacteria and other microscopic critters have evolved over millions of years to grow a healthy, thriving ecosystem. They take care of all the plants and fish. All I have to do is keep the microbes happy and the fish and plants happiness follow.

Focus on the microbes and your aquaponics success will surely follow.

Growing plants in fish water is gross and makes the produce taste fishy.

Status: False

This is a common misconception and I can see how it became popular. It is true that hydroponics plants can taste chemically if they are not properly “flushed”, or run in the system with pure water for a few days before being picked. Aquaponics plants do not require such treatment, unless a low quality fish food is in use. If you are using ordinary fish food like tetra flakes from the aquarium store, you could end up with some fishy tasting produce. If you use high quality, aquaponically based fish food you will certainly have the tastiest plants in recent memory.

Aquaponics Aquaculture Tank
Aquaponics Aquaculture Tank

A good fish food means great tasting produce. It has the right protein balance for the fish you are growing, as well as a healthy supply of vitamins and minerals. What goes in your fish food is what becomes fertilizer for the plants. It is vital to keep this in mind. It is the unique mix of vitamins, minerals and other compounds that give every plant its own flavor, texture and smell.

A good fish food is based on your fishes natural diet and does not contain any grain, antibiotics, or other modern adulterants. We try to never use fish meal based food either, because of its unsustainability. It actually takes between 3-5 pounds of wild caught fish to raise 1 pound worth of aquaculture based fish. This is ridiculous and totally non-sustainable.

Our favorite fish food is plant based for omnivores and vegetarian fish. It is corn, soy and GMO free. Our koi, tilapia and catfish love it!

Lettuce and herbs do great, but thats about it.

Status: False

Lettuce and herbs grow incredibly well in aquaponics.  Just about every aquapioneer starts off with lettuce and herbs.  In aquaponics lettuce is like the gateway drug because it makes you want to try everything else. These plants do so well because of the abundant nitrogen in the system, which causes leafy green growth.

Generally, I advise others to stick to leafy greens and herbs for the first few months at least, while their system establishes its microbiome.  Dr. Nate Storey has advised not to start serious tomato cultivation until at least year 2.

That being said, always be experimenting! We have grown jasmine and ginger in Connecticut and my green tea plant is still going strong.  Be the aquapioneer and don’t be afraid to try new things.

 Tilapia are the best fish for aquaponics

Status: False

Tilapia are certainly the most common for aquaponics gardens. They are super hardy against overcrowding, grow crazy fast, and produce a butt-ton of waste for awesome plant growth. They are used in most commercial systems because of their popularity on dinner plates around the world.

All that is true, but are tilapia the best fish for aquaponics? No. Because there is no best fish for aquaponics. Aquaponics is as individual and area specific as any other ecosystem. The fish that grow best in my Connecticut gardens are not the best for the tropical systems in Hawaii or the Virgin Islands.

I learned this the hard way. Like most upstart aquapioneers, I used tilapia in my first backyard system. It took two die-offs before I got the system to the point of sustaining them comfortably. Even now, I am not getting anywhere near the incredible growth speeds of Florida or California tilapia. My tilapia are a year old and could probably grow for another year to get full size.

My koi, however, are much better adapted to the Connecticut environment and are growing at a great speed. Koi are a wonderful species for cold-weather aquaponics because they boast many of the same qualities as tilapia, but they can handle colder temperatures in the winter and warm temperatures in the summer. The only downside is that koi are rarely eaten. Instead they are used for ornamentation of back yards and decoration of restaurants. Koi are extremely beautiful with wonderful personalities. They will even come up to the top of the tank to feed from your hand. Koi live long lives and even like being pet like a dog!

It is important to find a fish species that does well in your climate. Don’t just go for tilapia because everyone else does. Make sure they will work well for you. Look for local varieties anytime you can. They will always be better adapted to your climate.

Aquaponics is very expensive with a high barrier to entry.

Status: True and False.

Aquaponics DIY KitMany aquaponioneers have had their dreams dashed and companies ruined by failing to take into account the true costs of aquaponics.  Some systems on the market cost over $100,000 dollars just to purchase the parts, let alone construction labor and maintenance.

For these reasons, aquaponics is can be very expensive and hard to enter into.  However, I believe that these ventures and others like them have failed because they have tried to grow inorganically. Large loans and investments pay for the huge upfront cost of the system. Then it takes a few months to construct, a few more months to get the system up and running properly, then even longer to get the plants growing to production size. This is far too long for most investors and most lenders. What they see is a loss on their short term investment in you. Most investors nowadays are not seeking long-term ROI type investments currently associated with aquaponics.

There is another breed of aquapioneer out there, the DIYer, the Tinkerer, the Urban Farmer and the Container Gardener. These aquapioneers are learning their mistakes on a small scale, without significant investment. Some desktop systems sell for $150. Plans for a $100 backyard greenhouse can easily fit a $3-4000 system.

I hesitate to make suggestions to you, instead I will simply outline what has worked for us. We started with a small desktop system, costing around $2-300 for all the parts. It was our first attempt and took a few tries to get it right. We then decided to step it up a notch and we built a larger system in my backyard. This cost us around $3-4000 in materials. Again, we learned as we went and spent more than we needed to. Lessons we wouldn’t trade for anything. From there, we maintained the backyard system till we couldn’t take it any longer and built our largest system to date, a 32’x34’ system designed to feed our community. This cost us between $7-8000. Now we are talking some real money.

However, we had the diverse skill set from our past experiences that helped us keep costs low and build our best system yet. One of the Commercial Systems of the same size as ours are selling at up to $50,000 in the marketplace.

It is this type of natural growth that allowed us to be a stable aquaponics farm, when so many are “going under” (pardon the bad fish pun). We kept costs low through innovation and we didn’t expand beyond our means.

I hope you found this article informative and entertaining. I know that aquaponics is incredibly exciting. When I first learned about it, I couldn’t wait to tell everyone I knew, “look, I found the solution to hunger around the world!!!” It is easy to be overzealous about such an exciting topic. We must keep this excitement alive without succumbing to the temptation to embellish on aquaponics’ already impressive stats.

So keep it up aquapioneers! Go out there and prove why aquaponics is truly the most sustainable food source we have.

 


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