How Aquaponics Can Fit into a Plant-Based Diet

By Kallin Lang

lettuce for plant-based salad

The battle between wanting to live a more sustainable life, while still maintaining the same standard of living is one with which we all struggle. At Taino Farm, we do our best to incorporate sustainable choices into our own daily lives and impress those upon our interns and guests too. In a 2018 study at Oxford University, scientists found that avoiding meat and dairy was the single best thing to reduce your impact on Earth (science.sciencemag.org). But, change is hard. Luckily aquaponics can be a key stepping stone for those considering transitioning to a whole-food plant-based diet. 

What is plant-based eating?

Each year new catchphrases flood the world to lure us into the next, big fad diet. Yet whole-food plant-based eating is not a fad, but rather continuously choosing a greater proportion of foods made from non-processed ingredients free from animal products. This can include fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, whole-grains, legumes, beans, tubers, and more. Often confused with veganism since both lifestyles avoid consuming animal goods, vegans place less importance on the number of refined ingredients in their food. Vegans also condemn animal exploitation outside of the kitchen, whether in clothing, makeup, furniture, etc. whereas whole-food plant-based diets focus solely on the food on your plate.

hibiscus or flor de jamaica leaves as part of plant-based meals

What is wrong with traditional fishing?

While fish can provide us with essential Omega-3 nutrients to support brain and heart health and give us luscious locks (webmd.com), traditional fishing is unsustainable and damaging to the environment. Dredging and trawling, two of the most common forms of fishing, destroy coral reefs (marine-conservation.org), release harmful toxins into the ocean (academic.oup.com), and catch large proportions of non-target species killing sharks, dolphins, cetaceans, and other fish (oceana.org). Likewise, abandoned fishing gear contributes around 70% of all plastic pollution greater than 20 cm further endangering sea life (greenpeace.de). Compounding the issue, only 10% of the energy burned in these processes is recuperated in the caloric intake of the fish caught, making it an inefficient source of protein (onlinelibrary.wiley.com). Despite this, the demand for fish remains high. Currently, 76% of our fisheries are being fished to capacity, over-fished, or depleted (fao.org). For those not ready to give up fish altogether, we must search for new sustainable solutions to meet our fishing needs.

aquaponics growing plant-based foods

How is aquaponics a sustainable solution?

Aquaponics offers many advantages over traditional farming and fishing practices. Plus, the fish raised can be a conscientious choice for sustainably-grown protein. When considering a whole-food plant-based diet, aquaponics-grown fish can be a great aid during your journey or an occasional protein complement to a veggie-heavy meal. 

Land Efficient

Traditional agriculture uses large-scale farming equipment to manage vast expanses of fertile soil. It often requires tilling, composting, watering, and shipping in materials from outside sources. In contrast, you can put aquaponics systems just about anywhere; vertically, horizontally, on rocky soil, on sand, areas with poor water availability, small backyards, basements, and rooftops. Aquaponics sustainably gives plants everything they need in areas they can not grow otherwise. 

Water and Energy Efficient

Another enormous benefit of aquaponics is water efficiency. Aquaponics uses 90% less water than traditional farming because the water is recycled (abundancenc.org). This closed-loop system means less impact on the environment and less time watering your plants. Plus the energy required to run the system is electrical. This means it can run on solar, wind, geothermal, and hydroelectric.

Time Efficient

After the initial building phase, aquaponics needs little daily maintenance. Weeds and pests are close to non-existent within indoor aquaponics systems (researchgate.net), and there is no soil to maintain, just water chemistry. Because the plants survive on the waste naturally produced by the fish, besides feeding the fish daily, the plants need minimal care until it is time for harvest. Plus, aquaponics systems can provide vegetables and fish year-round, two sources of income, beating out traditional farming which is usually only one stream of income and seasonal. 

Waste Efficient

Furthermore, aquaponics systems produce little waste products. Extra fish waste is nutritious fertilizer for soil-based plants and damaged plants compost easily or provide innovative fish feed. Fish are also efficient at reducing waste themselves. This is because they do not have to regulate their body temperature or compete with gravity allowing them to convert a majority of what they eat into biomass rather than heat (iopscience.iop.org). As a bonus, the plants in the aquaponics system grow quicker and denser producing higher yields than traditional farming (ijsrit.com). 

Local

On average, your food travels 1,500 miles to your grocery store (cuesa.org). By eating food grown in an aquaponics system, you can grow the vegetables and fish in your house or backyard dropping this number to 0. This reduces the carbon footprint of your diet, which in turn helps preserve the environment. On top of this, you know exactly where your food has come from and the practices used to grow it. Fewer food miles also means fresher food packed with more nutrition and flavor making your meals more colorful and healthy. 

Organic

Traditional farms use fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides to manage any species they view as pests. These harsh chemicals often make their way onto and into the plants and animals, and the local watershed further killing wildlife and poisoning our waters (dnr.wisconsin.gov). In aquaponics, these harsh chemicals would kill the fish. So instead of artificial fertilizer, aquaponics mimics nature and uses the fish waste to provide nutrition to the plants. Many aquaponics farms also avoid growth hormones, antibiotics, and other synthetic substances too.

deep water culture v traditional soil based in plant-based diet

Aquaponics wields many advantages over regular fishing and farming methods. It is local and organic and is land, water, energy, time, and waste efficient. While the best option is always to avoid animal products, fish grown in aquaponics systems can be a healthful addition to meals for special occasions or help ease the burden for meat-eaters incorporating more natural whole-food plant-based choices into their lives. Come check out our farm tour or apply for an aquaponics, permaculture, and sustainability internship at Taino Farms to see for yourself the many benefits of raising fish in aquaponics.

digging and planting

Internship

Taino Farm Farm Tour and river float

Farm Tour

Taino Farm Permaculture Inspired

Permaculture

taino organic farm aquaponic

Aquaponics

Taino Organic Farm Vermiculture

Vermiculture