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Aquaponics in New England by Patrick Roche 1/3/2011

Aquaponics in New England

Aquaponics may not initially appear suited to competitive production in New England: traditional
farming and fishing have had long, successful histories in the region, and one of aquaponics’ main
advantages, water conservation, would seem best applied to an arid region. However, a full analysis
reveals that aquaponics fits quite well. It can supplement the offerings of traditional farming and fishing
where they have limits; it can significantly improve the sustainability of produce and fish production;
and it can foster a substantial increase in local food production that will strengthen food security and
protect our natural resources – especially important in a future with a changing climate and growing
population. My home state of Massachusetts will serve as our example throughout. The term
‘traditional farming’ refers to soil based agriculture including organic and non-organic.

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 increased 28% while the number of organic farms increased over
3,000% (from 3 to 103)1.

Figure 1. Farms in Massachusetts


14,000
13,000
12,000
11,000
10,000
Farms

9,000
8,000
7,000
6,000
5,000
4,000
1960 1965 1970 1975 1980 1985 1990 1995 2000 2005
Source: Economic Research Service, USDA. Farm Income. 2009.

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
Aquaponics in New England by Patrick Roche 1/3/2011

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 near markets. 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.

Figure 2. Share of Retail Price for Producers

‘Local food’ refers to both Direct and Intermediated supply chains. Direct sales are
from producer to consumer. Intermediated sales work through a middleman.
Mainstream refers to major supermarkets that make no meaningful connection
between consumers and producers. Source: Economic Research Service, USDA. Local
Food Supply Chains Use Diverse Business Models to Satisfy Demand. 2009.

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
Aquaponics in New England by Patrick Roche 1/3/2011

some direct supply chains would tend to have lower total greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions than
mainstream supply chains.

Figure 3. Food Miles and Fuel Efficiency of Supply Chains

Source: Economic Research Service, USDA. Local Food Supply Chains Use Diverse
Business Models to Satisfy Demand. 2009.

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.

Fishing

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’s Northeast Sustainable Seafood Guide: Atlantic Cod, Atlantic Halibut, Sole,
Flounder, Haddock (trawled), Atlantic Salmon (including farmed), and Bluefin Tuna (extremely
Aquaponics in New England by Patrick Roche 1/3/2011

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 fluctuate 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 counterparts4.

Table 1. Sustainability, Mercury, and Omega-3 Contents of Fish Eaten in New England
'Northeast Sustainable Mercury Omega-3s (ALA, DHA,
Fish Seafood Guide' Rating4 (mean)6 EPA per 100g)7
Bluefish Good Alternative 0.337 0.988
Cod, Atlantic Avoid 0.095 0.159
Flounder/Sole Avoid 0.045 0.321
Haddock (long line) Good Alternative 0.031 0.162
Haddock (trawled) Avoid 0.031 0.162
Halibut, Atlantic Avoid 0.252 0.248
Herring, Atlantic Good Alternative 0.044 2.146
Mackerel, Atlantic Not Listed 0.05 1.316
Salmon, Atlantic (and farmed) Avoid 0.014 2.218 (2.26)
Striped Bass Best Choice 0.219 0.986
Tilapia (Asia farmed) Avoid 0.01 0.18
Tilapia (Central, South America
farmed) Good Alternative 0.01 0.18
Tilapia (US farmed) Best Choice 0.01 0.18
Tuna, Bluefin Avoid 0.383 1.504

Improve Sustainability of Local Harvest

Water Use

In addition to providing a sustainable source of fish, aquaponics has other sustainability advantages over
traditional farming, hydroponics, and aquaculture. First, these techniques use a lot of water. Traditional
Aquaponics in New England by Patrick Roche 1/3/2011

aquaculture methods use between 0.57 and 33 cubic meters (m3) of water produce 1 kilogram (kg) of
fish, depending on method8 (See Table 2). Research at the University of Virgin Islands has shown that
their aquaponics system uses less than half of the water of the most productive traditional aquaculture
systems: 0.25 m3/kg8. On average aquaponic systems use between 90 and 99% less water than
traditional aquaculture systems9.

Table 2. Water Use of Aquaculture Systems


m3 water/kg of
Growing System production
Aquaponics
UVI Nile Tilapia 0.25
Aquaculture
Channel catfish ponds (Alabama)
Undrained Levee ponds 0.57-0.76
Watershed ponds 3.03-4.54
Trough Raceway
Unaerated 37.8-53.0
Mechanically aerated 7.57-18.9
Sources: See 8

Aquaponics also uses less water than hydroponic crop production. Aquaponic systems can last up to a
year or more without a full water change, whereas hydroponic systems need water changes about every
three months.9 The salt and other waste products that accumulate in hydroponic systems also constitute
a potentially harmful waste product.

Compared to traditional agriculture, aquaponics also uses much less water. The United Nations
Environmental, Scientific, and Cultural Organization finds that a one-pound head of lettuce requires an
average of 15.9 gallons water. Analysis of data from the University of Virgin Islands shows that their
lettuce required less than half that amount of water: 7.6 gallons per pound. And remember that the
same water produced 11,000 kg of fish, too. 9

In verdant New England, water conservation – or lack thereof – might not seem a major issue; however,
it will soon constitute one of the most important characteristics of an agricultural operation’s
profitability and sustainability. Already, the region faces chronic water shortages in the summer, and
population growth and climate change will exacerbate the problem.

Unfortunately, lack of major governmental action to limit GHG emissions has made significant climate
change inevitable.10 In the coming century worldwide, we will see higher peak temperatures, scarcer
water, higher sea levels, and higher intensity storms. In New England, the effects will be similar. The
region actually will see more precipitation, but it will come in sporadic, heavy downpours as opposed to
regular showers, with a higher likelihood of droughts in between.11 Since 1970, the region has already
Aquaponics in New England by Patrick Roche 1/3/2011

experienced an increase in the heavy precipitation events, combined with decreased snowpack and
earlier spring floods.12 Less water is and will continue to be available when crops need it in the region.

Combined with the stress of population growth, water will be at a premium. A study by engineering firm
Tetra Tech modeled the combined effects of climate change and population growth on water scarcity in
US counties and found that by mid-century, one third of all counties in the lower 48 will face higher risks
of water shortages than they do now; nearly half of those will face extremely high risks.13 In
Massachusetts, six (43%) counties will face moderate to high risks for water shortages (See Table 3).
These counties currently account for $138 million in agricultural production.13

Table 3. MA Counties Facing Moderate to High Risks for


Water Shortages by 2050
County Risk for Water Shortages
Barnstable Moderate
Bristol Moderate
Essex Moderate
Middlesex High
Norfolk Moderate
Suffolk High
Source: See 13

Other Sustainability Advantages of Aquaponics

Additionally, traditional non-organic farming uses many chemical inputs like pesticides, fertilizers, and
herbicides. The production and use of inorganic fertilizers are unsustainable in many regards. They do
not typically replace trace minerals in soil; they use massive amounts of fossil fuels, especially in the
synthesis of nitrate fertilizer (i.e. Haber process); and the nitrogen fertilizer applied contributes to build
up of the GHG Nitrous Oxide in the atmosphere.14,15 Pesticides and herbicides are typically produced by
fossil fuels, too and their application can have negative environmental impacts. Similarly, the nutrient
solutions used by commercial hydroponics operations contain chemical components often derived from
fossil fuels, are manufactured using fossil fuels, and typically use fossil fuels in their transportation to the
hydroponic facility.16,17

By definition though, aquaponics is organic. As a closed-loop system, aquaponics cannot use pesticides,
fertilizers, or herbicides, because the chemicals would harm the fish. Additionally, the nutrients are
produces on site by the fish, eliminating the need for transportation of nutrients found in hydroponics.
As for waste from aquaponics, the organic solids (i.e. fish waste) can be used as fertilizer for field crops
or other plants, as is done in University of Virgin Islands.

Further, aquaponics minimizes land use. Whether organic or not, traditional agriculture requires more
land to produce an equal amount of food. First, aquaponics is more productive per square foot. At the
University of Virgin Islands, Rakocy et al (2004) tested basil and okra production in aquaponics and in
fields. They found that per square foot of growing area, the aquaponic method was three and twenty
times more productive than the field production of basil and okra, respectively.18 Their productivity test
Aquaponics in New England by Patrick Roche 1/3/2011

did not account for the added benefit that aquaponics can produce year round, further increasing its
productivity per square foot in regions like New England. Additionally, innovative setups, such as vertical
farming, can improve productivity further. By producing food on a much smaller footprint than
traditional farming, more land remains open and available to protect as natural habitat or to use toward
other beneficial societal uses.

Help Scale Up Local Food Production

Scaling up refers to significantly increasing food production to a level well above the status quo,
dramatically altering the ratio of imported to in-state/region produced food.

Why Scale Up?

Aquaponics offers the potential to scale up local food production for Massachusetts and New England.
But first, why is scaling up production important to the region? As discussed previously, locally produced
food tends to produce less GHGs. It also provides an opportunity for local employment, helps to reinvest
money in the state or local community, and preserves open space and rural character of the region,
supporting tourism and real estate values. Local food often tastes better, too, because varieties are
cultivated for their flavors. In contrast, most commercial varieties are cultivated for their ability to
withstand the assault of freezing, packing, and shipping hundreds or thousands of miles.

In addition to growing demand for local food, climate change presents a major economic argument for
increasing local food production. Most of the extremely high risk areas for water stress in the Tetra Tech
study are in America’s major agricultural areas: the Great Plains and Southwest, including California. 13
Globally, climate change will have an overall detrimental effect on agriculture, too.10 This means prices
for imported food will likely rise. Having sustainably more food produced within our region will help
insulate us from these costs. Much like the country as a whole seeks increased energy independence, so
should we seek increased food independence.

How to Scale Up

For a number of reasons, it appears that traditional farming and fishing are not well suited to scale up
production. Unfortunately, the current economics of farming (including aquaculture) in Massachusetts
does not provide a thriving income. US Department of Agriculture data shows that just over 15% of
Massachusetts farms made more than $50,000 in sales in 2007; fully 64% made less than $10,000 in
sales.19 On average, Massachusetts farm owners’ net revenue was only $23,700, roughly equivalent to
the 2010 federal poverty level for a family of four.1,20 Perhaps this is why over half of farm owners have
another primary occupation19 (this corresponds to national figures, showing that the majority of farm
operators’ household income come from off-farm sources; See Source 21).

Compounding matters, Massachusetts has some of the most expensive agricultural land in the country,
averaging $12,000 per acre. That is lower than only New Jersey ($13,800) and Rhode Island ($15,300)
and miles above the national average of $2,000 per acre.1
Aquaponics in New England by Patrick Roche 1/3/2011

Additionally, the water scarcity previously addressed indicates that significantly increasing traditional
farming will either not be possible or will severely stress our existing aquifers and surface water. And of
course those agricultural needs must compete with the need for drinking, cooking, bathing, etc. Finding
enough land to meet the challenges would also be an issue. Excluding Maine, much of which was never
cleared, New England states’ experienced 40-60% declines in forest cover by 1850. By the mid 20th
century the region regained the vast majority of its forests, but forests have started declining once
again.22 To scale up agricultural production using traditional farming, we would sacrifice much of our
cherished forests (See Figure 4).

Figure 4.

The sustainability of fishing has been addressed previously. With the most popular local commercial
species already over fished, scaling up could only be temporary: it would likely collapse their population
and fish hauls, too.

Assessing the current economics and input needs and availability of traditional farming, scaling up of
crop production with traditional farming alone seems infeasible. For fish production, the sustainability of
fish populations - and the fishing industry - demands an alternative method of expansion. Alternatively,
aquaponics is an excellent candidate to fuel a production expansion in New England due to its
sustainability and lower input use. The economics in the region are currently being tested by operations
like E&T Farms, but it has been found to be profitable in countries like Australia, in tests at the
University of Virgin Islands, and in select markets around the US.

Conclusion: Aquaponics Fits in New England

Aquaponics is not a silver bullet; rather it is a critical piece of the food solution. Traditional farming,
especially organic farming, has many of the same benefits as aquaponics, fishing for some species is still
sustainable, and both farming and fishing are cultural ways of life that define New England.
Aquaponics in New England by Patrick Roche 1/3/2011

Nevertheless, I think that on the whole aquaponics is a beneficial technique that can and should
compete in New England. The capital costs do make the economics challenging, but we can apply many
of the same innovative techniques of traditional farming, like the CSA; incorporate creative engineering
designs; and utilize renewable energy generation to minimize cost.

Aquaponics fills many gaps of traditional farming and fishing: production in cities and on hazardous
waste sites, year round harvests, protection against damaging weather events, and protection of native
fish species. Aquaponics also has significant sustainability advantages over traditional farming,
aquaculture, and hydroponics: it drastically minimizes water and land use, can produce fewer GHGs, and
it does not utilize herbicides, pesticides, or insecticides. Finally, aquaponics can help fuel a serious
expansion of agriculture in the region – an expansion that will help increase our food independence and
insulate us from future price increases, in addition to many other benefits.

As a life-long New Englander, I see aquaponics as a means to participate in the revival of its once
thriving agricultural community, all while preserving its natural resources to the highest degree.

Sources

1. Economic Research Service, U.S. Department of Agriculture. Farm Income: Data Files. 2009.
http://www.ers.usda.gov/Data/FarmIncome/FinfidmuXls.htm.
2. Economic Research Service, U.S. Department of Agriculture. Local Food Supply Chains Use
Diverse Business Models to Satisfy Demand. 2009.
http://www.ers.usda.gov/AmberWaves/december10/Features/SupplyChains.htm.
3. Environmental Protection Agency. Waste Site Cleanup & Reuse in New England. 2010.
http://www.epa.gov/NE/cleanup/resource/findnesites.html.
4. Monterey Bay Aquarium. Northeast Seafood Watch Pocket Guide. 2010.
http://www.montereybayaquarium.org/cr/cr_seafoodwatch/download.aspx.
5. Massachusetts Marine Fisheries. 2008 Annual Report. 2008.
http://www.mass.gov/dfwele/dmf/publications/2008_dmf_annual_report.pdf.
6. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Food and Drug Administration. Mercury Levels
in Commercial Fish and Shellfish. 2010. http://www.fda.gov/food/foodsafety/product-
specificinformation/seafood/foodbornepathogenscontaminants/methylmercury/ucm115644.ht
m
7. Agricultural Research Service, U.S. Department of Agriculture. Nutrient Data Laboratory. 2010.
http://www.nal.usda.gov/fnic/foodcomp/search/index.html
8. Rakocy, J.E. 2002. Optimizing water resources in aquaculture production. Pages 33-54 in R.
Othman, K.Sijam and M.S. Saad, Eds. Technologies for Competitive Food Production, Universiti
Putra Malaysia, Selangor, Malaysia.
9. Food and Water Watch. Water Use in Recirculating/Aquaponic Systems. 2009.
http://lanikaifarms.com/Recirculating%20Aquaculture%20Systems%20(RAS).pdf.
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10. The Economist. Adapting to climate change: Facing the consequences. 2010.
http://www.economist.com/node/17572735
11. Frumhoff, P.C., J.J. McCarthy, J.M. Melillo, S.C. Moser, and D.J. Wuebbles. 2007. Confronting
Climate Change in the U.S. Northeast: Science, Impacts, and Solutions. Synthesis report of the
Northeast Climate Impacts Assessment (NECIA). Cambridge, MA: Union of Concerned Scientists
(UCS). http://www.climatechoices.org/assets/documents/climatechoices/confronting-climate-
change-in-the-u-s-northeast.pdf
12. Thomas R. Karl, Jerry M. Melillo, and Thomas C. Peterson, (eds.). Global Climate Change Impacts
in the United States: A State of Knowledge Report from the U.S. Global Change Research
Program. Cambridge University Press, 2009.
13. Natural Resources Defense Council. Climate Change, Water, and Risk: Current Water Demands
are Not Sustainable. 2010. http://www.nrdc.org/globalWarming/watersustainability/
14. Wikipedia.org. Haber process. 2010. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Haber_process.
15. Wikidpedia.org. Fertilizer. 2010.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nitrogen_fertilizer#Inorganic_fertilizers_.28mineral_fertilizer.29
16. Mother Earth News. Organic Gardening. May/June 1976.
http://www.motherearthnews.com/Organic-Gardening/1976-05-01/Oganic-
Hydroponics.aspx?page=2.
17. Lettuce Patch Gardens. Sustainable Agriculture. 2010.
http://www.lettucepatchgardens.com/what_is_sustainable_agriculture_colorado.htm
18. Rakocy, James E., Donald S. Bailey, R. Charlie Shultz and Eric S. Thoman. 2004. Update on tilapia
and vegetable production in the UVI aquaponic system. p. 676–690. In: New Dimensions on
Farmed Tilapia: Proceedings of the Sixth International Symposium
on Tilapia in Aquaculture, Manila, Philippines.
http://ag.arizona.edu/azaqua/ista/ista6/ista6web/pdf/676.pdf.
19. Economic Research Service, U.S. Department of Agriculture. State Fact Sheet: Massachusetts.
2010. http://www.ers.usda.gov/statefacts/MA.HTM.
20. Mass Legal Help. 2009 Government Poverty Guidelines. 2010.
http://www.masslegalhelp.org/housing/poverty-guidelines.
21. Economic Research Service, US Department of Agriculture. Farm Household Economics and
Well-being: Farm Household Income. 2010.
http://www.ers.usda.gov/Briefing/WellBeing/farmhouseincome.htm.
22. Foster, David R. et al. Harvard Forest, Harvard University. Wildlands and Woodlands: A Vision for
the New England Landscape.
http://www.wildlandsandwoodlands.org/sites/default/files/Wildlands%20and%20Woodlands%
20New%20England.pdf