Guest post written by: Conor O’Higgins
Admit it: if you’ve been around the paleo community a while, you sometime dream about being in one of those idyllic hunter-gatherer-gardener societies of the past. The Inuit, Masai, Kuna, Hawai’ians – these traditional societies certainly had beautiful lifestyles and superior nutrition to modern industrial civilization. But my job is to dream of the idyllic hunter-gatherer-gardener society of the future.
There’ll be ten to fifteen billion of us on Earth soon, and it’s time to ask the Basic Practical Question: how are we gonna feed the tribe? Sachets of dehydrated astronaut food? Soylent Green? No thanks. What if I told you we can feed a growing population with high-quality organic vegetables, fish, meat, fruit and herbs, and do it all with less land, less labor and less water than we currently use?
There are a lot of smart people with a lot of smart answers to the Basic Practical Question: there’s permaculture, urban gardening, seawater-irrigated farming, aeroponics, open ocean farming. Today I want to talk about just one answer: aquaponics.
Raising fish in tanks – that’s aquaculture. Growing plants in enriched water – that’s hydroponics. Smoosh the two together and that’s aquaponics –you grow plants in water enriched by nutrients that are produced by fish grown in tanks. (By ‘nutrients’, of course, I mean ‘poop’.)
If you’ve ever kept a goldfish, you know that the tricky bit is keeping the water clean. The beauty of aquaponics is that the plants do this for you; as they extract the nutrients from the water, they clean it up for the fish. The result is a micro-ecosystem consisting of fish, vegetables, herbs… and a few paleo humans snatching up the surplus.
This system is as productive as it is elegant. Regular hydroponics can grow plants several times quicker than growing in soil. Aquaponics has this same advantage, with some research suggesting that aquaponics yields even more plants than conventional hydroponics (not even counting the fish).
Will Allen of Growing Power is successfully feeding 10,000 people on a three-acre aquaponic farm in downtown Milwaukee. The next time someone tells you it’s impossible to feed ten or twenty billion people sustainably, or that vegetarianism is the only way to do it, slap them with that example!
I believe that aquaponics and paleo fit together as elegantly as fish poop and plant roots. The paleo community meets the demand-end of aquaponics; paleo folk want a bunch of organic vegetables, fresh organic herbs, omega-3 rich fish, but no grains or beans?
If the paleo community is to make credible and comprehensive suggestions about the food we eat, then it needs to answer the Basic Practical Question. We need to suggest, and to demonstrate, how to grow food in the best, easiest, most efficient, and most sustainable way possible.
Back up. Did I say ‘organic’? Yep. An interesting thing about aquaponics is that it is organic by necessity. A big threat of chemical fertilizers and pesticides is that they’ll be transported by water to where fish live and kill the fish. Now if a farmer sprays these chemicals in open fields, the fish are miles away – and out of sight is out of mind. But when the entire ecosystem is contained in your basement, you better make damn sure to take good care of it and not poison one part of it to benefit another!
So what can you grow with aquaponics? Leafy greens like spinach are the staple produce of every backyard aquaponic bed, and aquaponists regularly churn out big lettuces and cabbages in 3-4 weeks. Kale is another aquaponic staple food that packs megadoses of vitamins and minerals, and has anticancer properties. But don’t think that aquaponics is limited to these – any herb or vegetable that can grow in a conventional garden will be happy in an aquaponic bed.
Tilapia is the most commonly used fish – it breeds like an aquatic rabbit and tolerates any kind of water quality. Jade perch grows nicely in aquaponics systems and has an exceptionally good omega-3:omega-6 ratio. In colder climates, trout and catfish can be grown. Carramundi, Murray cod and silver perch have also been used successfully. There’s an experiment I really wanna see someone try: prawns and tilapia together in the same tank. They like the same water conditions –and just think about the awesome ceviche you could make!
An interesting thing about aquaponics is its scalability. Aquaponics systems have been built in all sizes. Barrelponics is a system using 55-gallon drums, with the blueprints for building your own given freely to the world. There are other systems that cover acres and feed thousands of people. Interested in local food? Aquaponic systems can be slipped into basements, backyards and balconies everywhere, and many of the most interesting systems are in cities. Besides Growing Power in Milwaukee, there are too many other urban aquaponics heroes to count, like Eric Maundu who runs Kijani Grows in Oakland.
The paleo community need not feel guilty about the environmental consequences of the paleo diet. A healthy ecosystem consists of a varied network of plants and animals. It follows that if human communities are to take care of healthy ecosystems, we should grow and eat lots of plants and animals. A plant-only diet is not ecological. A grain-based civilization is not ecological. Only synergistic systems of plants and animals (including fish) are ecological. If we are to survive on this Spaceship Earth, we need to grow not crops, but ecosystems. We have all the know-how needed to create stable, organic ecosystems of plants, animals, insects, fish, fruit and fungi – and to nibble off bits of the ecosystem a few times a day!
So let’s build some ecosystems! If paleo is going to take over the world – and that’s the whole point right – we need to get busy growing sustainable ecosystems like aquaponics wherever there are people.
What do you think? Let me know in the comments.
Conor’s mission is to feed the crew of Spaceship Earth. He has designed a permaculture farm in Guatemala, started an urban garden in Dublin, set up a gourmet mushroom cultivation project, and managed an aquaponics system in Haiti.