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Aquaponics, a New Standard in Sustainability

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Since Managing Editor Allston McCrady wrote the June.July feature “Scales of Justice” exploring the state of Charleston’s seafood industry, sustainability has been on all of our minds here at TLP.

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Photos by Geoff Maddock Photography

So when, during a recent trip, I visited FoodChain in Lexington, KY, I jumped at the opportunity to hear from its knowledgeable Executive Director, Rebecca Self. FoodChain, the state and region’s first indoor aquaponics program, is just one of many aquaponics programs that have cropped up throughout the South in recent years. In some instances aquaponics has been offered as a sustainable alternative to mass fish farming operations (which are often criticized for their negative environmental impacts and less flavorful end product). However, in FoodChain’s case, the decision to use aquaponics was more about the community’s need for food system development and outreach.

“We really wanted to show that in an urban agricultural setting, even an indoor agricultural setting, you have access to a lot of ‘wastestreams’ from being in an urban environment, which can actually serve as input for your operation,” says Self. “By the same token, being located in the heart of a city, your outputs, whether they be raw food or prepared food, have an easy distribution network because you are right where people want to eat.”

What exactly is aquaponics? Essentially, aquaponics is the practice of growing fish and plant crops together in shared water, creating a closed-circle loop that benefits all. When Self refers to ‘wastestreams,’ she means excess, surplus, or leftover food product that humans no longer have use for. The fish are fed a combination of vitamins and these excesses (at FoodChain, spent grain acquired from West Sixth Brewing Company next door.) The fish consume the grain and then produce ammonia waste.

In a typical mass farming operation, the highly concentrated wastewater is simply dumped and replaced with fresh water, often ending up back in natural water sources. Alternatively, with an aquaponics system, friendly bacteria are introduced that actually convert the ammonia into nitrates, which plant crops such as lettuce, herbs, and micro greens, absorb up through their roots, continuously filtering the water so the water needn’t be replaced. There is an excellent video illustrating the process here.

“In many respects it’s basically mimicking the relationship that exists in nature between aquatic animals and aquatic plants,” says Self.

Is it just me, or is this a perfect way to farm?

“Because in recent history we haven’t really had to grow food in this country with limited resources in mind, aquaponics seems to be newer to us because it is such a sustainable way of growing,” Self explains. “It takes advantage of the environmental trends and the popularity of the notion of ‘okay, how can we grow more with less?’ whereas before, it’s always been about maximum efficiency and price points. Ironically, aquaponics does really well on those fronts as well.”

In a global community increasingly forced to reckon with the fact that growing populations, rising effects of environmental pollution, and limited landmass will eventually reshape the way we farm and look at food, aquaponics seems destined to be a part of the long-term solution.

Editor’s Note: For a taste of aquaponic produce, try Smithtown Seafood in downtown Lexington, KY whose tilapia, lettuce, herbs and micro greens are sourced from FoodChain’s headquarters right next door!