Why are aquaponics so slow to take hold?

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It's the ultimate for 'green' households that want to keep fish, so why are no mainstream suppliers embracing the aquaponics concept, asks Nathan Hill.

Very recently I wrote about the impetus on the hobby to up its green credentials, though at the time I made very little mention of an area that could be one of the driving forces that we need. Moreover, it even has the potential to boost the number of fishkeeping adherents around the world. I'm talking, of course, of aquaponics. Though you probably guessed that from the title of this piece. Hey ho.

So, shame on me for not making more of a thing of it at the time. Now, an overview of what all the fuss is about.

Aquaponics is touted as a hyper-efficient method of growing plants with minimal water wastage. Typically, to grow plants in soil requires watering of said soil. Once watered, only the tiniest percentile of that liquid actually makes it into the tissues of the plant. The rest quite simply evaporates away. Well that's no good.

By contrast to this old fashioned, H2O quaffing growing technique, aquaponics adherents merely find ways to suspend plants above a contained body of water, with roots submerged. Typically, large scale aquaponics involve huge vats of water with an intricate irrigation system above, with trays or pipes where the plants reside. Yay! No more wastage that way.

Is there anything else to it? You bet your sweet boots there is!. As well as just providing water, an aquaponics system can also directly provide a nutrient source for the foliage above; courtesy of fish! It's no secret that plants love to consume the delicious, nutritious wastes that fish produce. Hell, aquascapers have been exploiting that fact from the offset of their own unique hobby. Even my own experiences with 'scaping have shown me that a heavily planted system is so good at guzzling up ammonia that I end up with a biologically inactive filter, and I have to add synthetic versions of fish waste in order to keep my tanks blossoming. I don't exaggerate that point, either. There is an obvious visual difference between the biological media in any of my filters pending whether they're 'scapes or plantless set ups.

So what we have in the aquaponics world is a situation where fish are kept in large containers, and are able to be fed heavily (allowing for good growth) because, quite simply, the more waste they can make, the better. Plenty of fish equals plenty of plant food, equals abundant plant growth above. It's one of those situations where you wonder why nobody thought of it before, because it's that outright, slap-me-in-the-face obvious with the tiniest bit of retrospect.

Of course, from the commercial perspective, there are two outcomes; crops in the form of food vegetation and food fish. This is the only area I think that the UK tastes might be a little resistant to the concept. We Brits often like to think of ourselves as a sanitised nation. We like our salads disinfected with chlorine, our apples shiny, and our veg from a sterile packet. To digress, I've had frequent occasions where folks have refused an apple directly from a tree on the grounds that it was 'dirty' in some way. "You don't know what's touched it!" was a common remark directed my way as I tucked into my free bounty, as though the toes of a passing Starling might have somehow been drenched in E. coli or some other case-zero, zombie outbreak pandemic. I'm sure I don't need to spell out the madness of this situation, where an imported piece of fruit, sagging under the weight of a billion pesticides is somehow considered the safer option. Ye gods!

So, how will the typical Brit react to eating plants grown in fish peeps and poops? I suspect not that well. Oh, I know there's an enlightened crowd out there who can see past the faux squeamishness of it all and understand that this is the way forward. But I'm taking about the general public at large. That lumbering, clueless mass, fast drawn to hysteria. The kind of folks that stay awake at night panicking at an invasion of giant spiders, because a tabloid red top told them to. The kind of chaps who will hoot in delight over a Youtube video of a chicken dancing on a piano, and then fill their faces with KFC without any sense of irony. That public. But if we can win them over, get a couple of aquaponics systems in the Big Brother house, or on a decent daytime TV show — even if someone donates on to a celebrity chef, for crying out loud — then there will be rivers of cash for the maker of that tank. Make aquaponics trendy (or even, dare I say it, aspirational) and the people will flock. Build it and they will come.

But let me get back on track here. The fact is that for us who understand that ammonia is ammonia whether it comes from a packet of fertiliser or a fish's gills, the aquaponics concept is a great way of killing two birds with one very well placed stone. We are able to keep fish in the exact, low pollution conditions that we want of them, and at the same time we are able to grow herbs and brocolli from the comfort of our living rooms. We get happy fish and free chillis. That's got to be a result, by anyone's standards, right?

Which brings me to the very point of my blog: why aren't mainstream manufacturers embracing this idea, and forcing their design teams to build a funky model on pain of death? They're missing a trick, for certain.

Let's look at this from a sales perspective. You have a hardcore of extant hobbyists who would love the idea of something that keeps water cleaner for less expense and less effort. But you also have a whole multiverse of people out there who currently don't keep fish, and in many cases what they need to get lured in — to take that first taste of the hobby — is a gimmick. The point of sale for an aquaponics set up has several buzzpoints. Low maintenance, for one, just like a veg filter on a pond. For two, it's a tank you can harvest something back from. You're saving the planet by keeping fish. If a marketing department can't ride around on a gift horse like this, scooping up huge handfuls of revenue in diamond-studded silk gloves, then they have no place in their daily jobs.

There are aquaponics systems appearing out there. We covered one a while back, though personally I felt that the particular example was about appearances of pragmatism. Another I stumbled across was tiny, designed to house a single Betta, and frankly a bit breathless. But realistic efforts are appearing from pioneering kickstarter campaigns. Here's one I found on a quick search, which ticks several of the right boxes. Based around a ten US gallon (38 l) tank, and with no unnecessary frills attached, this is something I'd genuinely like to have a play with (you can see it in detail in the video below). And I'll wager that when my friends see it, they'll want one of their own. I hope you're reading this, big companies. After all, nanos are so 2010 now: it's time for something new. It's all right there on a plate if anyone has the sense to make it...