Aquaponics, aquaponics farming or aquaponics gardening is a symbiotic method for growing plants and fish in a healthy, natural but soilless or near soilless environment for the benefit of everyone and everything involved. Not only will it produce healthy, tasty fruits and vegetables for your table, you can also choose to harvest the fish, an excellent and healthy protein source to complement the plants in your diet. It’s up to you whether you would prefer the fish as pets or food, or a little of both.
The principle of aquaponics is simple: grow plants, fruit and vegetables in hydroponic conditions without chemicals by raising fish to provide the nutrients for the plants instead. Although the term “aquaponics” is recent and modern practices derive largely from research conducted in the 1960s, integrated farming of one type or another is probably as ancient as farming itself and may have evolved from the observation of symbiotic systems in nature. Whatever its origins, integrated farming has been practiced in Southeast Asian rice paddies for thousands of years. Fish in the rice fields help provide the nutrients for the growing crops and in turn the plants help keep the water clean for the fish.
Another example comes from the Americas: living on the shores of Lake Techotitlan and in dire need of arable lands, the ancient Aztecs of Mexico developed a technique to grow crops on floating rafts in near soilless conditions. Nutrient rich soil was dredged up from the lake bottom and spread on the rafts where the plants would grow. As the seeds matured into plants, their roots would penetrate through the soil and the reed rafts to the lake below where the fish were plentiful. Essentially the Aztecs were practicing large-scale aquaponics using the natural resources at hand.
What about hydroponics you ask? Modern hydroponics can be traced to 17th century Europe but there are arguments for much earlier origins.
The Aztec example discussed in the previous section is often cited as an early form of hydroponic farming, and it is a good example in the sense that the Aztecs were practicing near soilless farming, drawing nutrients directly from the water. The hydroponic element, in this case, was the plant subsystem. Other, more ancient examples that are often cited are the “hanging” gardens of Babylon,which are believed to have been fed with water drawn from the Euphrates river below. The theory is that some mechanism was employed to carry the water to the top of the gardens and the entire system was watered using a cascading or trickle down method to feed every plant in the chain. There is a catch, however, the system was not soilless or “hanging”, according to descriptions by ancient writers (Diodorus Siculus, Strabo, Quintus Curtius Rufus, Philo of Byzantium). There may have been less soil than would occur in natural conditions but the descriptions make the terraces sound more like giant stepped planters with over hanging plants than hydroponic systems.
Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics apparently describe the process of growing plants in water but there doesn’t appear to be much information detailing what the process was exactly. Sometimes 1st century Roman Emperor Tiberius is credited with using hydroponic techniques to grow cucumbers out of season in proto green houses. This may be an argument for early greenhouses, but was it soilless? Finally, 13th century adventurer and trader Marco Polo came back from his trip to the Far East claiming to have seen plants growing on floating beds in China. It is not unlikely but whether this was an example of “pure” hydroponics or some form of aquaponics technology analogous to that of the Aztecs, is unclear. As we have seen the Chinese and other far eastern cultures were well acquainted with integrated farming and gardening.
All of this being said, and despite the scanty evidence, it would be very surprising indeed if ancient cultures had not experimented with growing plants in water or on water; examples of untethered, naturally floating plants are found in nature, why wouldn’t they have tried it? The best evidence does appear to show, however, that the more successful models more than likely involved some form of aquaponics or integrated farming principles.
Why pick Aquaponics over Hydroponics?
Aquaponics and hydroponics are frequently described as competing models: you pick one or the other, but this is a false dichotomy. In reality, aquaponics is a form of hydroponic farming that can be traced back hundreds, even thousands, of years to ancient civilizations. It is a natural, chemical-free and symbiotic hydroponics model.
Even the terms used to describe them mean the same thing: hydro is the Greek form for water, aqua is its Latin form, both end with “ponic”, which derives from the Greek ponos for labor or work. The terms, however, were coined relatively recently and have different histories: the modern term “aqua” ponic derives from a combination of aquaculture (fish farming) and hydroponics, hydroponics is just, well, hydroponics. This gives the impression that aquaponics is more recent and somehow is somehow derivative of hydroponics but as we have seen, if you factor coco coir in ancient practices, this belies the fact that aquaponics, or integrated farming, is probably ancestral to both modern versions.
Modern hydroponics takes the natural symbiotic element out of the equation and replaces it, for the most part, with a chemical solution. This may be necessary and viable for space exploration or other situations where a symbiotic system is impossible or impractical but otherwise, aquaponics is, in my opinion, the superior choice.