Aquaponics in New York City

Urban agriculture combines both urban and agrarian cultures. Agriculture built farmlands; industrialization built cities. The industrialization of agriculture led to monoculture, chemically-intensive food, pesticides, synthetic fertilizers, hormones, and output was valued more than nutrition, generating profit rather than solving the hunger crisis. Urban agriculture has emerged as a rapidly growing movement to help solve the food problem.

More and more community gardens and rooftop farms are popping up in New York City. Urban agriculture is poised to provide nutritious food to people who did not previously have access to healthy food. It is an opportunity to take control of one’s own food consumption.

Space is limited in cities, the environment is man-made, but aquaponics can overcome both of these limits.

Aquaponics combines aquaculture – fish – and agriculture, fostering a symbiotic relationship. Just as the world around us evolves through a symbiotic ecosystem, permaculture seeks to model natural ecosystems. Aquaponics creates its own ecosystem. Fish excretions are broken down by nitrogen-fixing bacteria into nitrates, nutrients for the plants, and the plants filter the water for the fish. This method of farming saves water, produces greater yields, and plants grow faster. This ecosystem is in a controlled environment, not limited by the changing seasons so it can produce year-round. Aquaponics can be built at a very small scale, in someone’s home or on a rooftop. The farms can be vertical or stacked. It meets the core desires of urban agriculture – local, organic, sustainable, accessible, efficient, scalable.

Two major concerns arise: whether or not aquaponics qualify as organic farming and that the large greenhouses remind people of a science lab (that is to say, not a place to gather food). A concerned crop specialist writes, “We have come to realize that soil is actually a system full of life and nutrients. Thousands of species live together, eating and dying and recycling minerals among themselves. The organic grower introduces crops to this system and tries to interfere with it as little as possible” (Sideman, Maine Organic Farmer & Gardener).

We live in New York City. The air is polluted and a large portion of the soil is toxic. We buy quality soil, so that we can replace the toxic soil. We buy seeds sourced from other places to plant the crop. We build an irrigation system to supplement the natural rainfall. We companion plant based on research of which plants grow well together. It is easy to forget how much agriculture draws from scientific findings and advances in order to grow healthier, more efficient crops. While a farm might look like nature, it is a human cultivated plot of land, with human cultivated seed, built to maximize plant production. Aquaponics simply draws from research that shows soil is one of many mediums to hold the roots and sustain organisms that produce nutrients and healthy bacteria. It is still the water that supplies nutrients to the plant. While aquaponics does not produce a soil-based ecosystem to provide nutrients for plants, it does produce an ecosystem – full of life and nutrients, and numerous species living, recycling minerals in a water-based ecosystem. This ecosystem is interfered with as little as possible, as a symbiotic relationship builds between the fish and plants.

Around the world people are working to develop more symbiotic, sustainable systems. Polycultures of fish in aquaculture increases the system’s biodiversity. Growing algae – algaculture – can reduce habitat degradation and supplement other green energy sources through the development of high-quality non-toxic, renewable, biodegradable biofuels (Sahara Forest Project, 2009). Using earthworms in aquaponics – vaquaponics or vermiponics – could sustainably feed fish (Midmore and Roe, 2008). It is this constant permacultural innovation that needs to be harnessed.

The NYU Urban Farm Lab currently uses traditional farming methods, without enough space to expand and test hydroponic and aquaponic methods. New York University has the resources to expand this farm lab, diversify its farming methods, and an indoor space would greatly expand the research and program. The NYU Urban Farm Lab is positioned in the heart of New York City, amidst the expanding urban agriculture movement, at one of the biggest research universities, and has the opportunity to be a major contributor to urban agriculture.


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