Part I - Aquaponics in New England

Part I of Aquaponics in New England discusses how aquaponics can supplement the offerings of traditional farming and fishing where they have limits. A PDF of the entire paper (Parts I-III) can be downloaded here, including a full list of sources referenced by footnotes.

Supplement Traditional Farming & Fishing
First, it is important to understand the current state of agricultural affairs in Massachusetts. After a precipitous decline in the 1960s, the number of farms in the state is now on the rise (see Figure 1). As of 2008, the state had more than 7,700 farms (including aquaculture and nurseries).1 Many of these farms have hit on effective and profitable strategies, such as Community Supported Agriculture, farmers markets, and/or organic certification. The growth is fueled significantly by organic agriculture. Between 1997 and 2008, the number of farms in Massachusetts increased 28% while the number of organic farms increased over 3,000% (from 3 to 103).1

Traditional Farming
Despite the growth, traditional farming has limits in Massachusetts. Whether organic or not, traditional farms have a limited growing season. Many cold hardy species...
can be grown through late fall and some root vegetables stored and sold throughout the year; however, overall, the quantity and variety of local food decreases in fall, winter, and spring. In contrast, many of the summer vegetables, leafy greens, and herbs thrive in aquaponic systems that produce year round.

Also, traditional farming is subject to the vagaries of weather. Droughts, heat waves, hail, and unexpected frosts have serious detrimental effects on crop production. While irrigation systems exist to combat water stress, their increased use raises operating costs. In New England, commercial aquaponic facilities would be indoors (utilizing artificial or natural lighting) to operate year round. As a result, the controlled climate would be immune to these weather stresses.

Another limitation on traditional farming is availability of land. Land is scarcer and more expensive near major population centers and hence markets. This often makes farming impractical or very expensive in and around cities. While some residents can afford the higher priced produce farms near cities command, most urban poor cannot. Many inner city residents already face ‘food deserts’ in their neighborhoods. Traditional farming can assist with urban farmers markets or by supplying grocery stores, but the food must often travel a significant distance. This distance has important ramifications for the farmer and the environment. First, across the county and diverse crop types, producers in direct supply chains retain a higher share of retail price than producers in intermediated or mainstream supply chains2 (See Figure 2). Therefore, if the food travels by way of a middleman, then the farmer sacrifices revenue.

Second, local supply chains generally transport their food fewer miles and tend to have lower total fuel use than mainstream supply chains – intermediated supply chains are unequivocally lower; direct supply chains can be lower depending on fuel efficiency2 (see Figure 3). As a result, the intermediated and some direct supply chains would tend to have lower total greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions than mainstream supply chains.
While farmers that participate in urban farmers markets do sell in direct supply chains, they incur the cost of transportation and are responsible for the associated emissions. In contrast, aquaponics facilities need comparatively little land and can be built inside a city, literally surrounded by their market, providing great opportunities for direct marketing and sales with minimizing transportation costs and emissions. 

In addition to quantity of land, traditional farming is limited by the availability of arable land. As a result of our industrial past with weak environmental regulations, there are thousands of sites contaminated with hazardous waste around New England.3 Often called Superfund sites, the contaminated soil or groundwater makes the land unsuitable for traditional farming. In contrast, aquaponic facilities can operate on such sites, as long as their water comes from an offsite source, helping to revitalize communities and put waste land to productive use.

The local seafood industry faces limitations, too, which aquaponics can help alleviate.  Most major commercial species in New England’s waters are severely overfished, although many of us eat like they’re not. Nearly all of the most commonly caught fish in Massachusetts are listed in the ‘Avoid’ category of Monterey Bay Aquarium's Northeast Sustainable Seafood Guide: Atlantic Cod, Atlantic Halibut, Sole, Flounder, Haddock (trawled), Atlantic Salmon (including farmed), and Bluefin Tuna (extremely endangered).4,5 While this does leave some sustainable and tasty alternatives, like Herring, Striped Bass, Bluefish, Atlantic Mackerel and Haddock (hook/longline), these fish constitute a minority of market share.  Simply put, the current demand for local fish is not being met sustainably.

Aquaponics offers an alternative to help feed New Englanders’ desire for local fish without harming wild populations. Granted, Tilapia, one of the most common aquaponic fish, is not Cod or Haddock, but it is a similar light white fish, and no one says you have to give up native species completely.  Further, US farmed Tilapia has extremely low mercury levels – lower than Cod or Haddock – and it contains beneficial omega-3 fatty acids (albeit at low levels).6,7  When evaluating native fish and farmed Tilapia on their sustainability, mercury content, and omega-3 levels, US farmed Tilapia have one of the best combinations (See Table 1). Additionally, Tilapia is a relatively low priced fish, and being farm raised it has consistent pricing year-round; not true for most wild fish whose prices fluctuates with season and weather. Of note, the distinction between the origins of Tilapia is important. Aquaculture practices in China are highly unsustainable and those in Central and South America are better but less sustainable than their US counterparts.4

See a complete list of sources by downloading the PDF here.

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