(Picture by charlie vinz from chicago – portable fish farm, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7913728)
Let’s talk fish. Take my word for it: It may not sound like the most glamorous of topics, but our swimming friends are potential game changers in the world of Personal Urban Farming (PUF).

I’ve mentioned aquaponics in the past, but have yet to expand on the topic. Especially for those who are new to alternative farming, this might be a method you don’t really know much about. Even if you are savvy on the pros and cons of aquaponics, it never hurts to reconsider the basics of what makes this technique a viable option (or not so viable option) as we brainstorm the future of PUF.

Aquaponics is a combination of aquaculture and hydroponics. As futuristic as the name may sound, experts in the field argue that the basic concept can be traced back thousands of years.

Essentially, aquaponics uses fish and plants . They rely on one another to live. Waste from the fish feeds the plants while the plants filter the water so that the fish have a healthy environment.

When people are first introduced to aquaponics, I’ve found that one of the most common reactions is concern regarding the amount of water that is required. If fish are involved, doesn’t that mean you will use more water than other growing methods would?

This is an important question to address, as water will only continue to become a more limited resource in decades to come.

Despite the ‘aqua’ in aquaponics, this method of alternative farming actually uses a very minimal amount of water comparatively. One source referred to it as “water recycling.” Aquaponics creates its own ecosystem that cleans the water as it passes through the growing plants. Water, then, is very intentionally used and retained by all steps of the process.

The only time that water is lost is during cleaning, during which an effective aquaponics setup will only lose about 10 percent. This percentage is already down considerably from what is was just a few years ago.

As an advocate for PUF, one of the most exciting aspects of aquaponics for me is the lack of restriction regarding location. Aquaponic systems have been set up in all types of spaces—indoors and outdoors, on land unsuitable for farming otherwise, in urban homes and small apartments.

In fact, if you want to create your own aquaponics system today, there are online tutorials and step-by-step videos that make it easy and affordable, as well as published studies showcasing successful urban setups around the world.

To prepare for your aquaponics system, take note that you will need to invest in quality fish food. This is probably the main item you will continuously need to add to keep this method of food production going.

Of course, there are a lot of questions you may have surrounding the details. Which fish are best? Which plants are best? Which combinations are most effective, and do I need to add any nutrients to my water?

This takes us back to the database that we’re currently working on putting together—a database that would essentially be a recipe box for PUF.

Scientists in the field continue to explore what the options and what works best. What’s exciting is that everyday people, like you and I, can join in that exploration and experimentation. With an online database to share our results, we will be able to make double the progress by learning from one another.

Until the database is up and running, rest assured that many types of fish and many types of plants have proven to work well in aquaponics. There are simplified lists available online that can help you start brainstorming which produce you would like to grow and which fish can help complete the cycle.

If you are still on the fence about trying aquaponics, I have one final bit of encouragement:

Last year, an article was published in the Journal of Science and Technology Education explaining a project in which students created their own aquaponics system. The report concluded that this group of young adults saw improved “sustainable development, social compromise, team work and cross-cultural communication skills” as a result of their collaboration.

Clearly, there is much to learn from aquaponics.

Just as the fish and plants need each other, we must rely on one another to continue advancing environmentally-friendly methods that can produce the food we need, where we need it most.