Innovative food start-ups in B.C. are pioneering a new technique in which fish and plants help each other thrive.
Aquaponics combines aquaculture, or fish farming, with hydroponics, a method of growing plants in water instead of soil, to create a futuristic closed-loop agricultural system that produces almost zero waste.
Until recently, aquaponics has been the domain of hobbyists using the technology to grow fish and plants in their basements or backyards.
But in the past couple of years, six commercial aquaponics farms have started operations in the province, including two in Victoria, one in Duncan, one in Prince George, one in Hope, and one in Metro Vancouver.
“We want to take it out from the hobby place and put it on the commercial scale. We want to grow food that is profitable,” says Ahmed Aibak, founder of Urbanspace Aquaponics. The company operates a 3,000-square-foot greenhouse in Richmond that includes two large fish tanks and five hydroponic troughs.
Fish waste feeds greens
The aquaponics growing method imitates natural ecosystems, says Andrew Riseman, academic director of the Centre for Sustainable Food Systems at the UBC Farm. “It’s what nature does.”
Here’s how it works. Aibak keeps about 750 tilapia in two tanks. All he has to do is feed the fish — and the system virtually takes care of itself. The fish excrete in the water, which is then cycled through a filtration system.
Ahmed Aibak on feeding his tilapia (0’55”)
This is where the magic happens, says Aibak. Beneficial bacteria convert the fish waste in the water into nitrogen, which plants thrive on. The plants gobble it up, purifying the water, which is then recycled back into the fish tanks.
The system as a whole uses much less water than conventional agriculture, says Riseman.
“If we are going to raise animals with water efficiency and ecological integrity in mind, then this is the way of the future.”
Leafy greens lead the way
Aibak markets his lettuce around Vancouver via Urban Digs, a local farm cooperative, and SPUD.ca, an online grocer that delivers local and organic produce to
customers. So far, Aibak has sold out his lettuce every week it’s been on offer, says Micky Tkac, produce buyer for SPUD Vancouver.
In Victoria, Lyle Macgregor of Green Fin Aquaponics sells leafy greens, herbs and tomatoes at farmers markets, specialty stores and local restaurants.
He says he was inspired to start up his business last year when he saw how well Victoria’s Mason Street Farm was doing growing food aquaponically.
Selling the fish is more complicated. Aibak fears he can’t compete with a strong tilapia import market. He plans to donate the fish to local charities instead. He says his business can thrive on lettuce sales alone.
Just a couple of hours down Highway 1 in Hope, however, You Grow Food, another aquaponics start-up, has applied for a license to sell their tilapia.
“We’re not trying to compete with the import market,” says Rudy Kehler, one of four founding partners at You Grow Food. “The people that want to buy tilapia at Superstore, they go buy tilapia at Superstore. This is for people who want a fish that they know where it was raised, they know what the water quality is like, they visit us and they know us personally. It’s a hyper-local model.”
Ahmed Aibak: Aquaponically grown plants don’t taste like fish (1’12”)
However, aquaponics is a nascent industry in B.C. and there’s still a lot of trial and error involved. In Nanaimo, things are not going well for Julie Vandenbor’s company, Vancouver Island Aquaponics, which is not a commercial food grower, but markets backyard aquaponics systems.
Vandenbor and her partner have tried selling the produce they’re able to grow with their home system. But nobody was buying at farmers markets this past summer, says Vandenbor. She gave up after three market days resulted in about $50 in total sales. Afterward, she had to accept a job offer and put the company on the back burner.
Although new in B.C., aquaponics has already seen success south of the border in the U.S. and in arid Australia, where it is attractive due to growing issues around water conservation.
“Before climate change gets us, it’s going to be fresh water,” says Riseman, who has designed a prototype for an aquaponics system he says can be shipped
anywhere in the world to encourage sustainable agriculture even in the most arid conditions. “We are very privileged here in B.C., but that’s not the way it is in most of the world.”
For his part, Aibak says his interest in sustainability is what attracted him to aquaponics in the first place.
“I want to be that little piece of the big picture that’s doing something. Our population is increasing, our water resource is dwindling. Aquaponics is not the solution, but it’s definitely a little piece of the solution. I want to be part of that. My passion is to promote technologies that can produce good healthy organic food sustainably.”