As aquaponics is a reflection of the relationship between plants and animals in nature, it might seem strange to read about a distinct ‘history’ of aquaponics. But aquaponics as a human agricultural discipline is a very compelling topic.
Starting with southern Chinese farmers in the 6th Century, agricultural aquaponics leaps forwards in time and across oceans to the Americas, where the Aztecs developed their famous ‘chinampas’, or floating raft growbeds.
Even the Hanging Gardens of Babylon have been referenced as an early foray into aquaponics, although care must be taken over historical legend, as by that route you could also support the sinking of Atlantis as simply an early (and severe) aquaponic experiment.
There is then a 500 year gap before John and Nancy Todd brought aquaponics into the 20th Century, and several other pioneers shaped their ideas into the aquaponics systems we know today.
Ancient Chinese Aquaponics
Rice paddies have been a staple of Chinese agriculture since 11000BC- much longer than recorded history. Unsurprisingly, the rice farmers experimented and refined their techniques over thousands of years. This culminated in the 6th Century, in which ducks, fish, and rice plants were used to create an early aquaponics system.
The system has a beautifully simple elegance. Peking ducks kept in the rice paddies would eat insects, pests, and small fish. The nutrient rich duck waste would be eaten by the fish (most commonly oriental loach and/or swamp eel). The fish waste would be broken down by nitrifying bacteria, and the rice plants would clean this nutrient ‘waste’ and thrive as a result.
As well as free fertilizer, the farmers got free fish food from the ducks, and free duck food from the insects attracted by the rice paddies. Although this was by no means a closed-loop system (meaning it was influenced by external factors), the farmers had great control over this aquaponic system, even creating stepped terraces to create micro-climates and control the evaporation and flow of water.
The Aztecs’ use of aquaponics came about rather differently, thousands of years later. Whilst the Chinese farmers freely experimented to improve their crops out of choice, the Aztecs were forced into aquaponics by necessity.
The capital- Tenochtitlan- was surrounded by swamp land. This land- which was useless for normal farming, forced the Aztecs to improvise and adapt.
Their solution was to build large, artificial floating islands using mud, decaying plant matter, and woven reeds. These islands, or chinampas, could be fixed in place, or movable. Crops such as maize, beans, and squash were planted on these chinampas, and thus large areas of previously useless lake and swamp land could now grow vast quantities of food.
In the chinampa system, the islands were built in already flourishing ecosystems, in places with thriving fish populations (and therefore nutrient rich water). The planted crops would benefit from the nitrates in the water and grow rapidly.
This is in contrast to the Chinese rice paddy systems, in which the farmers had much greater control over the components, and often introduced fish and other wildlife artificially.
The New Alchemy Institute
Despite its arcane title, the New Alchemy Institute (NAI) was simply a foundation aimed at creating sustainable human support systems. Founded in 1969 by John Todd, Nancy Todd, and William McLarney, the NAI conducted research into food, water, energy, and shelter, on behalf of the people and the planet.
The founders built huge bioshelters known as ‘The Arks’ in Canada and the United States. These were entire self-contained ecosystems, and the animals, insects, plants, and even the soils were carefully planned to minimize the need for external input.
The NAI use of aquaponics came, not as a way to maximize food growth, but as a way to improve water conditions for fish. The quality of water in The Arks’ fish tanks would deteriorate quickly, and required regular cleaning and replacement. Plants were added to this system just to clean the water for the fish. This was the first modern mainstream example of aquaponics.
These ideas were further developed by people like Dr McMurty and Professor Sanders of North Carolina State University in the 1980s. Their research introduced the idea of separate growbeds (they used sand as their growth media), and popularized the use of tilapia, which is still the most widely used fish in aquaponics today. This was the most probably the first closed-loop aquaponics system: meaning that it did not rely on external factors to function (although technically fish food was required).
During the 1990s, Tom and Paula Speraneo developed the design which is the basis for most aquaponics systems today. By replacing the sand with gravel, and further manipulating the water cycle with an automated flood and drain siphon, the Speraneos have been integral to the extrapolation of aquaponics since the turn of the century.
These models were improved by pioneers such as Dr. James Rakocy in the Virgin Islands, and the members of The Freshwater Institute in West Virginia, and would become the basis of contemporary aquaponics.
After that, aquaponics took of as both a hobby and a commercial force. Australia was the real hotbed of innovation, with websites such as Backyard Aquaponics allowing for sharing of ideas and research through its open forums.
The fire quickly spread to the United States, where similar websites and communities formed and began to share and develop ideas together. Since the mid 2000s aquaponics has spread all over the world, and is widely considered (along with vertical farming techniques) to be the future of food production.
Sustainable food projects all over the world are currently engaged in creating a better future for families and communities in developing countries, and- at the other end of the spectrum- millions of dollars are made every year through commercial aquaponics.