Is Aquaponics the Right Choice?

Aquaponics has become a quick celebrity in sustainable food production, and many beginners are interested in creating these systems. In terms of permaculture design, there is some potential in using them, but equally so, it’s important not to lose sight of matching the design to the landscape and resources available. In other words, there are occasions when aquaponics is a sensible option, but not every occasion.


The Basic Premise

With regards to water-based food production within modern Western convention, there have been two main methods: hydroponics and aquaculture. Hydroponics is a method of growing plant-based food in liquid solutions, typically water with nutrient solutions added to feed the plants. Aquaculture—at least as is regarded by factory systems—is synonymous with fish farms, large tanks in which seafood is raised.

While they aren’t without benefit, both of these have serious issues. Hydroponics requires constant inputs to feed the plants, and by and large, this has been done with chemical fertilizers. As with chemical fertilizers in land production, this produces vegetables deficient in nutrients and is an unsustainable method. Aquaculture, in these terms, requires inputs to feed the fish, contaminates water sources, and requires constant renewal of freshwater.


An aquaponic bed of lettuce


Aquaponics is a cyclical system in which hydroponics and fish farming are combined. In this situation, plants in grow beds and fish in tanks work together, with the manure-rich water from the fish going to feeding the plants, which clean the water so that it can be sent back to the tanks. In this case, many issues are solved: Plants get their nutrition from natural sources, dirty water gets cleaned innately, and so the water is constantly reused rather than changed.


Some Basic Issues 

While aquaponics certainly seems a better choice than either hydroponics or fish farming alone, there are some issues of which to be aware. It isn’t a perfect option. Though people call it a sustainable means of food production, an aquaponics system must have a human to consistently monitor and tweak it, and it will not work without some assortment of inputs.

For many, the fact that it needs a pump is a real negative. Even when using gravity to move the water through grow beds and back into the fish tanks, a pump is still necessary to move the water out of the tank and up to the grow beds to flow back down. This means electricity is needed. While solar and/or wind powered pumps are a truly viable option, they are an issue—cost, maintenance, knowledge—themselves.


Windmill Water Pump


As well, despite the perception that aquaponics is a closed cycle, that’s rarely true. Most systems rely on importing fish food, which means both constant expenses and questionable sources. Most fish food comes from wild fisheries and soy fields. While the feed is an issue that can be addressed, because it creates more complexity that humans must control, a sustainable solution isn’t often the approach taken. Importing fish food (not to mention fingerlings) is far from ideal.

Otherwise, soil is soil, and soil is full of trace minerals, symbiotic relationships, and life cycles that a system like this can’t provide in full. While the fish manure is great, most plants—greens, tomatoes, cucumbers— grown in this way aren’t meant to grow in water alone, so they inevitably are going to be lacking some of what a soil-grown version would have, both in flavor and nutritional potency.


Where It Is Appropriate

None of these issues are to say that aquaponics has no place in modern, sustainable food production. Solar power offers renewable energy to minimalize the cost, both financially and environmentally, of pumping water. The food, depending on the fish, can come from clean, sustainable sources, such black soldier fly larvae, worms, algae, water plants, etc. The fish manure, while not the same as soil, is a considerable step in the right direction from chemical fertilizers, and elements like liquid compost can be added to enrich the mixture.


Fish in an aquarium


Even so, aquaponics is better suited to urban environments, where square footage needs to be kept to a minimum and production needs to be more intensive. In cities, grow beds can be stacked vertically above the fish tanks that are fertilizing them so that much more food can be produced in the same area. Rather than having tanks or grow beds alone, aquaponics adds some efficiency where land comes at a premium. In such a location, this type of intensive production has a larger role than the diversity a typical, well-designed permaculture site might have.

And, of course, having these systems in urban areas means a huge reduction in food miles. That’s relevant improvement. While an argument can be made for the food nutrients provided by healthy soil, a lot can also be said about the nutrients lost when these foods are imported. With less shipping, there is obviously less reliance on petroleum, and there should also be less food loss due to spoilage. In these ways, a convincing argument for urban aquaponics may really hold water.


Where It Might Not Be Right

On the other hand, most aquaponics systems are not true ecosystems that can take themselves over and remain productive and functional. They are human-operated farming systems that require a lot of time and attention, unlike say a dam or series of ponds, which can be put in motion and developed into self-sustaining systems, with natural food cycles from which we can harvest plants, fish, crustaceans, and rich irrigation water, not to mention the recreational and aesthetic value.


Fish taking air in a fish pond

When the space is available to have small ponds and dams and the climate is right for these things, then it makes much more sense—in terms of inputs and outputs—to go that route. It’s a better trade-off for the environment, which benefits from water systems, especially when they don’t require imported resources to create. In these systems, baitfish, crustaceans, insects and other fish fodder can be permanent parts of the system, as can production and predatory fish, as well as water fowl and water plants. The fertilized water can still be used for irrigation for floating and/or terrestrial gardens. The edges of the ponds can be utilized as yet another highly productive area resulting from the system.

In other words, if the space is available, it makes much more sense to invest in something other than aquaponics. This larger type of true (what Geoff Lawton calls) aquaculture, which layers the production of water systems as would happen in a food forest, is a much shrewder outlay of money, time, and energy. In this version of aquaculture, fish can be harvested. The water is cleaned by shellfish and water plants, and it also helps to nourish vegetable production. All the while, it becomes habitat for birds, frogs, and other wildlife as well as fish. Mostly though, once in place, it requires very little input or energy from people.


Is Aquaponics the Right Choice?

Like any other permaculture technique, aquaponics is and isn’t the right choice, depending on the circumstances. It is an intensive, Zone 1 way of producing abundantly, but it will require daily visits and constant attention, even when all the mysteries are deciphered. In wide open spaces, aquatic systems don’t need to be this way. However, in urban areas and suburban neighborhoods, where water is easier and cheaper to come by than earth, it might be the right thing.

What mustn’t be forgotten is that it isn’t a magic answer to all of the world’s food woes but simply one more tool to be used in figuring out a better approach of coexisting with the planet.

Jonathon Engels

The financially unfortunate combination of travel enthusiast, freelance writer, and vegan gardener, Jonathon Engels whittled and whistled himself into a life that gives him cause to continually scribble about it. He has lived as an expat for over a decade, worked in nearly a dozen countries, and visited dozens of others in the meantime, subjecting the planet to a fiery mix of permaculture, music, and plant-based cooking. More of his work can be found at Jonathon Engels: A Life About.


  1. A thoughtful and balanced article about the context-bound utility, and limitations, of hydroponics and aquaponics. In general, anything that requires constant human intervention and energy input is less than optimum. Also, as the article notes, topsoil is more than a collection of plant nutrients. It also is a complex ecosystem of microorganisms, who interact symbiotically with plant roots in manifold ways we are just beginning to understand.
    In my own experience, I have found that hydroponically grown lettuce is quite tasteless, and as other animals do, I generally trust my taste receptors to tell me what is best to eat!

  2. If you select the correct fish species then they can be feed from weeds grown within the system and create a closed loop.

    1. Heather, Could you expand yor comment to include which fish and what weeds. I know about black soldier fly farms and worm farms for fish food but think that would not be enough. Have you found a way of in including human waste in the cycle. That would really close the lope for me.

      1. So personally I have done a bit of research on using human waste and unless you personally and whomever else you would be using human waste from stands a high chance of contaminating your food with salmonella our waste has to be very processed….however I have discovered that rabbit waste is pretty good to use and it is one of the only fertilizers out there that you can pretty much take from directly under the animal and apply it to your garden without having to worry about any kind of contaminants I’m currently still researching but I do hope this helps

  3. You forgot to mention that aquaponics uses one tenth the water of conventional soil based gardens. I am in a small town on 1/3 acre. I am attracted to Aquaponics but am concerned about nutrient value of Aquiponics vs Soil grown foods. Have there been any studies in this reguard?

    1. There haven’t been any university studies I can find. Hydroponic vegetables generally are said to taste worse then aqua ponics. I don’t know where the writer got this nutritional statement but i think it’s just his own biased opinion

    2. We are simply putting our plants with some soil in the aquaponics system. This way we have the best of both worlds. We live in Namibia where it’s so dry that aquaponics is the only choice for us, but we still like our plants in soil :)

      1. Hello Immo!

        I am working on my senior thesis for my Bachelors degree and was wondering if you would be available to chat? I’m super interested in your experience growing with aquaponics in Namibia.


        1. Hi Matthew
          If you’re looking for more people to chat to about aquaponics for your thesis, I can put you in touch with one of the pioneers of aquaponic farming in South Africa, if you’re interested?

  4. Aquaponics was developed a long time ago in China and perhaps South America too. (Not Hawaii university) and so, it is a traditional method.

    My tank has not needed cleaning for nearly 20 years. I gave up testing pH etc after five. Rock solid at 7. This is not requiring constant upkeep. it’s a prototype, a dream machine performing now for almost two decades without a hitch.

    The marriage of terrestrial/aquatic ecosystems is where you find ‘aquaponics’. It’s an edge tech/phenomenon and a perfect example of how microbes perform ecosystem services.

    A series of ponds where the water is directed to crops in order to feed the crops and clean the water… This is aquaponics.

    The potential to save water and space while producing vast quantities of superior food (try it, you’ll see). This is aquaponics. Yes, it takes a learning curve. I got three degrees in the interim while testing (observing) my prototype…

    Oh, and if you want to diminish parasites/pathogen loads to virtually none, run the pond water through a large biofilter and the wee critters get captured/eaten each water cycle greatly reducing their presense till the fish are not bothered by ‘deadly’ organisms as their numbers are simply not significant.

    1. DC Brown -Your system interests me as I venture into hydroponics /aquaponics. Is there a possibility to see an example of your system. I live in Vienna, Austria and will begin in a few months to explore this method of food growing for my four person house hold. Regards James.

    2. Sounds very interesting, I would love to know more. This would be for a personal subsistence project rather than commercial.

    3. I’d like more info on the system you’ve developed!
      I’m in Saigon Vietnam and the land here is very expensive.
      Thank you

  5. Read the book published by Permanent Publications,. Ecological Aquaculture a sustainable solution. ISBN978-1-85623-060-5
    A river or stream that supports a fish population is a fully integrated natural aquaponics system, It really does not need to be redefined by would be individuals. Other definitions tends to be cultivated by those than know a little but have yet to grasp the relevance of aquatic ecosystems and how they are integrated and interact in a particular environment.

  6. I started a small aquaponics project. I am concerned about food safety on these systems. It’s common for Fish raised in aquarium to carry diseases and as result the water that circulates to the plants bed.
    Do you have any information in that regards?

    1. From what I have seen of other people they regularly eat the fish in there systems but also give enough time to replenish if you can find a balance to help keep from overcrowding of the fish that is one of the main causes for the fish to become ill and things of that nature….also if you have already built up can clean up most of it and I do apologize but I cannot recall what is used but I know there are 2 other ingredients you can use to extract the fossil fuel

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