A simple, practical ‘food-for-all’ idea

By Dev Nadkarni

The effects of climate change on agricultural productivity, the rising costs of hydrocarbon fuels, declining freshwater tables and plummeting local private sector investment and interest in the agriculture sector have all conspired to sharply increase the Pacific Islands region’s threat to food security in the past few years.

Moreover, depleting fish stocks because of both overfishing and climate change, increased salinity in inland freshwaters and erratic rainfall patterns have only exacerbated this looming threat. This has inevitably shot food prices through the roof all over the region – a fact borne out by research from the Food & Agriculture Organisation (FAO): statistics show real food prices, after adjusting for inflation, have increased by a whopping 19 percent in the islands region over the past two years.

There are grimmer tell tale signs on how fragile the food security scenario is: A report from the Centre for Sustainability in Hawaii has recently put out research that says 95 percent of the islands food is imported and delivered by just one shipping company. According to the research, if the ship fails to arrive for any reason, natives of the world-renowned holiday destination are just 9 meals away from hunger and 20 meals away from starvation.

It gets even more alarming. In May, the World Bank gave a US$ 2 million emergency food grant to the Kiribati government to supply food to some 62,000 people living in the sprawling country’s outer islands. Kiribati, which imports most of its food, has been hit particularly hard by high and volatile food and energy prices. According to estimates, iKiribati spend as much as 50 percent of their household budgets just on food.

Given these daunting factors, promoting conventional agriculture in the islands and making it work productively is clearly an uphill – if not increasingly impossible – task.

But there is a viable solution. An agricultural technique that was practiced in ancient China, Mesopotamia and other ancient peoples is being revived in many parts of the world and seems to be gaining ground because of its many positive attributes.

Interestingly, the technique has found adherents both in the developed and the developing world, demonstrating that the perception of threat to food security is universal – not just restricted to far flung islands. Agriculture universities around the world are also engaged in researching this technique with a view to fine-tuning and tweaking it to suit different environments and milieus. Many projects have been set up at the community level after the devastating Haiti earthquakes and are running successfully.

The technique is called aquaponics. It combines two forms of recognised farming methods – aquaculture and hydroponics – to create a sort of symbiotic system of production. It brings together the best of both systems to cultivate both fish (protein) and plant, effectively overcoming the individual pitfalls of aquaculture and hydroponic systems. There are no herbicides, pesticides chemicals or fertiliser used and it has almost zero water wastage or use after the initial system fill.

It uses extremely nutritious fish effluent that contains almost all of the required natural elements for optimum plant growth therefore eliminating the need for chemical additives for growing the plants. Rather than discharging the water, as in aquaculture, aquaponics uses the plants to clean and remove nitrogen and then re-establish the water balance which is then returned back into the fish tank. The water can constantly be reused, needing replacement only when moisture is lost through transpiration or evaporation.

The simplicity and elegance of the technique is crystal clear. It is actually as simple as it sounds and I have seen it in action at a full scale experimental aquaponics farm in New Zealand. The beauty of it is that it is scalable. It can be done in small tubs on windowsills and backyards to larger operations in the size of a barn.

Aquaponics addresses soil erosion, water usage, productivity issues and tackles many of the existing biohazard issues within the Pacific’s agricultural export industry. Because of this simplicity, low costs, quick turnarounds and incredible scalability, it is being embraced in countries as farflung as the United States, Australia, New Zealand, South America and several small islands across the world.

Pacific Islands Trade & Invest (PIT&I) – a Pacific Islands Forum organisation – is spearheading efforts to implement this innovative technique in the islands.  In the past six months, research by its team headed by New Zealand based Trade Commissioner Adam Denniss – in concert with an aquaponics academic and expert who has set up several successful aquaponics operations on both sides of the Tasman – has shown that aquaponics is a viable system for food production.

“It is a practical solution in addressing food security concerns particularly in isolated communities of the Pacific who suffer from poor soil and limited access to fresh water,” Mr Denniss says.

The technique has shown itself to be a commercially viable concept and is completely scalable to suit any level of population. This means its potential to be used at home by Pacific families to feed families or as a large scale commercial operation is all very achievable.

A successful example of this already exists in Hawaii’s Friendly Aquaponics operation, which is a commercial one. It grows eight times more vegetable produce in the same time and in the same land area as conventional farming, while using only 12 percent of the energy per unit of produce as does farming in the ground, with only 2 percent of the water used.

Aquaponics’ advantages are many: the technique, with minor and inexpensive tweaking to the basic infrastructure, can be used to grow almost any fruit, vegetable or crop. Remember, with harvestable fish at hand, there is also an associated protein source – like no other farming technique. It also highly productive and conserves space, water and energy.

It is completely organic and since no soil is required, it potentially skirts a number of soil related quarantine issues if the produce is destined for export. It is scalable and transportable – especially important in the face of natural disasters like tsunamis and cyclones. Also, the beauty of the technique is that the produce can be grown on tabletop tubs, eliminating the need to bend over or squat on the ground as in conventional agriculture.

But perhaps its most attractive proposition is that it is detached from the oil economy and global food supply chains, thereby promoting import substitution and putting food security right into the hands of the community with no inputs required from extraneous sources.

PIT&I is working toward helping Pacific Islands communities build and maintain both commercial and community-based projects, says Trade Commissioner Denniss. “We propose to build a commercial aquaponics facility that will produce and act as an education and research house as well as potential commercial sales to support its existence. This facility will grow product that can be sold at market or for exports. However, although commercial in its model, it will act as a free education facility,” he adds.

First appeared in Islands Business, August 2011