In an objective-based view, one can say that hydroponics and aquaponics are simply different routes to the same destination; growing plants without the use of soil. From my experience the more nuanced reality revealed two niches that better suited one or the other method. Of course there are always exceptions to the rule, but generally hydroponics is better suited to massive commercial food production facility especially when the sizes exceed 4-5 acres. Hydroponics allows farmers to fine-tune their nutrient formula to achieve incredible consistency in their quality and quantity while maintaining a highly sanitary environment. Aquaponics, on the other hand, forces farms to divide the focus between the plants and the fish. Large aquaponic farms must devote a large amount of time, money and resources to keeping the fish healthy and producing consistent nutrients. Aquatic diseases are a major concern and a large investment must be made to control temperatures, otherwise the drop in temperature will slow down the metabolism of your fish.
Aquaponics shines in agricultural categories such as non-profits, personal business sub-three acre farms, hobbyists, commercial decor/aesthetics, and applications where emphasis on natural biological systems in harmony is desired. The small 24 m x 44 m system could easily boost a communities' access to healthy vegetables, fruits, and fish for very little individual financial contributions while serving as practice grounds for budding agriculturalists and environmental biologists. The real significance of aquaponics lies in its unparalleled sustainability; even more so when in conjunction with other natural cycles such as composting, outdoor gardening, and chicken keeping. Food waste from harvests can be used to raise black soldier fly larvae for chickens and the fish. Solid fish waste and chicken waste can be returned to composting or used in the outdoor garden. Solar can be introduced to take small systems off-grid, effectively un-tethering a family's (or community's) dependence on commercially available food.
Finally at the sub 10 gallon range, hydroponics takes the lead once again due to the convenience of measuring out the perfect concentrations of nutrients for your plants. It is possible to grow a healthy bibb, kale or arugula in 2 L bottles using the kratky hydroponic method. This makes it optimal for absolute beginners to begin growing their own food at home and serves as an excellent introduction to soil-less agriculture.
Regardless of the method, I am certain the future will see a rise in both methods to sustain the growing demand for local, healthy produce in a more environmentally-conscious market.
Global climate change and population growth has become the droning broken record of our age. It's a well know prediction that we'll reach almost 10 billion people by 2050, most of which will be living in cities and we have to quickly figure out how to keep everyone fed. The first steps, I believe, are ones of reform. Better legal avenues for food production infrastructure, more agricultural education, and a greater social emphasis on sustainability would help tremendously to kick start the slow migration of food from massive and secluded monoculture farms to the urban centers.
Furthermore, the key to overcoming the high prices of urban real estate would be through the integration of food production within the everyday facets of city life. One of the greatest assets in aquaponics is that the process can be extensively customized. Nutrient rich effluent from fish can be pumped great distances, limited only by the power of the pump so massive circulatory networks can be made to connect high producing grow beds with several fish tanks. This, of course, is a fantastic vision of the many possibilities that aquaponic opens up. Regardless of the method used to produce food one aspect remains the same: to achieve something we do not have, we must do something we haven't done. One of the unfortunate consequences of modern farming is that it removed the product from the consumer. For the most part a consumer is not involved with the production of his or her food, there's no second thought as to how it was grown, transported, sold or even marketed as the world of agriculture as secluded and misunderstood as it is wasteful.
To further prove this point let me describe the gauntlet a head of lettuce has to endure to sit on the shelf of your local grocery store. First, seed suppliers provide proprietary phenotypes of lettuce to the grower/farmer who then grows it out as fast as possible because their life depends on it. If the lettuce is going to be chopped for a salad it must be first sold to a processor as the farmer cannot legally cut it, otherwise it's sold to a distributor. Distributors require the lettuce to meet produce weight and attractiveness standards that cause approximately half of what is grown to the landfills, but if the lettuce is deemed worthy by the distributor it is then packed and shipped once more to retailers who can then sell the lettuce to you. Just as in the natural food chain, there is a loss of resources every time the lettuce exchanges handlers. Petroleum is used to harvest, transport, and refrigerate, the price tag keeps going up to accommodate the profit margins of the middle man, and a compromise in produce quality and nutrition is made in favor of greater shelf life and transportability.
This is all to say that we don't just need a new method of food production, we need a new system. Food can no longer remain an afterthought for the public to take for granted. I believe that reintroducing food production into the spotlight of modern life would have great results as it would instill a sense of respect to food. We cannot afford to continue dumping our food in landfills or sustain massive global food transport.
For transparency's sake I must begin by saying that I have never attended an aquaponics course nor received certification through an agency. That being said, I have delved into the many available courses and guides just to see what is offered in the aquaponics field. The majority of the educational aquaponic services were 3 hour long farm tours for between 50-100 dollars a person and weekend long seminars for home systems for a couple hundred dollars. Few outliers included online seminars or classes that spanned multiple weeks, but those tended to be close to a thousand dollars.
What I mean to emphasize with this observation is that the resources for learning how to run an aquaponic system are limited by the sparse physical locations of aquaponic farms or the high price of online courses. On top of that, the time and material required to cover the intricacies of aquaponics cannot be condensed into short lessons for a weekend.
If aquaponics is truly something that interests you use that curiosity to be proactive about gathering aquaponic knowledge. There is no better way to learn than to get involved, jump in, make mistakes and ask plenty of questions.
The Truth About Aquaponics
There's not a lot of information about aquaponics out there and I've noticed that in order to gain a lot of attention, the information shelled out can be over exaggerated or embellished. Before I talk about what aquaponics ISN'T I'd like to say first what it IS.
Aquaponics is, at its core, an agricultural method. This method isn't an exemption pass to all the forethought of garden design. It does however mitigate a large percentage of labor and resources involved in agriculture. It uses far less water, requires much less additions of nutrients, allows you to virtually ignore soil related work and problems all while growing the plants at higher densities and grow rates. Nature constantly reminds us that there is no free lunch; everything has a price. This is certainly true with aquaponics as you are responsible for the wellbeing and growth of fish. Fortunately for the farmer, fish aren't exceptionally hard to take care of as long as you keep their tank and water comfortably clean so the tradeoff between the benefits and additional work isn't a tough call to make for many.
What aquaponics ISN'T is a fool-proof, so-easy-your-dog-can-do-it technology that basically grows your vegetables and fruit for you. While a well kept and properly established aquaponic system can certainly give that illusion, the road to that goal is one of learning, adapting, and most importantly observation. You still have to use integrated pest management; that is to say think about your systems surroundings and consider temperature, light, humidity, and other factors that may affect your fish or plants. Include plants that attract beneficial insects and group together synergistic plants like legumes and veggies of many varieties to lessen the chance that one disease decimates your entire garden. These caveats may be off putting to those who want the benefits of a garden without the work, but the labour itself can have you reap other rewards. It teaches observation and the effectiveness of giving direction your efforts. It teaches patience and commitment to a goal that may take months to achieve (especially in the case of fruits). It teaches you the incredibly invaluable lesson of how to fail. While I by no means wish to dishearten, as a small aquaponic system can realistically be maintained with a maximum of 20 minutes a day, there will be moments of failure that are opportunities to grow and instrumental to learning.
The most important and final caution I want to impart is that aquaponics is extremely addictive! Once you start making progress and see how powerful your effort can be, you'll never want to stop. So, for those wanting to give aquaponics a shot I say to you: there is no time like the present. If you encounter problems or need guidance we'd be happy to be a helpful friend along the way.
Cheers and Good Growing