Thursday, June 23, 2011

Thoughts on Food Production

I've been thinking a lot about aquaponics and where it fits in with society and the future of food production. I probably should sit down and outline this a bit to make it more organized and coherent, but maybe I'll just start writing and see what happens.

I heard someone refer to aquaponics as an "open source technology", and that really resonated with me. As I'm sure many of you can relate to, I've often wondered if there was a viable way for me to quit my current job and try to do something with aquaponics as a career instead.  I have a Google News filter set for "aquaponics" that scans through all the news sources on the web that it follows and looks for the keyword "aquaponics". Every day, I get about 3 emails (sometime less), and virtually all of them are talking about this "new technology" and give a brief introduction to what aquaponics is in the context of talking about how a developer is talking about converting an old, abandoned warehouse into some giant indoor, urban farm with aquaponics.  Almost all of them go on to talk about they are planning to grow lettuce or some other green, rarely even hinting that you can grow anything in aquaponics.  Additionally, I see folks out there valiantly trying to make some money off of this technology by starting aquaponic consulting companies or building ready-to-use aquaponic systems to sell. While I'm certain that there are a great number of people who will make money off of aquaponics in one way or another, I personally believe that aquaponics is more important than that.

Maybe it's just me, but I have a hard time justifying charging someone for my time "consulting" about aquaponics when everything they need to know is already out there on the web. While there are a number of good e-books for sale out there that are a good investment for the beginner, anyone with an internet connection and a little bit of time can not only download plans and building materials, but also get great advice on what to do and, more importantly, what NOT to do.

So maybe it's not about making money on aquaponics?? Maybe aquaponics and producing/harvesting fruits, vegetables, and seafood on the local scale (or micro/backyard scale) is more important than money??

We are at the cusp, in my opinion, of a major shift in the way we live, work, and play. I am, admittedly, left-biased, and my opinions are rooted in my background as an American, but I've reached a point where I don't think things are going to get better. I believe we've reached a point where lies and falsehoods are blindly followed as doctrine, while truths are mocked and shouted down by an ever-growing majority. Honest, logical debate is a thing of the past, and the two sides are as far apart as they can be.

Fueling the fire is an ever-increasing population base with ever-increasing needs, not the least of which is food. While billions of people live in relative poverty, residents of wealthier nations are able to eat fruit from South America in the winter.

In addition (though the issues are not at all separate), our global environment is changing in a way to make our planet less hospitable for humans to live on. It took a great deal of pushing on our part to get this change moving, but now that it is in motion, I fear that there's little we can do to stop it. Scientific consensus points to more extremes in temperature and precipitation, and many places around the world that have become used to available water will face drought conditions far more often. Extreme droughts (and resulting wildfires), floods, and violent weather have played a major role in recent years in contributing to crop shortages.

What does it all mean?

To me, it means that we need to do things differently. We built an entire civilization on the premise that we can move things efficiently and cheaply from one corner of the globe to another, so long as there was a great enough desire and a willingness to pay. Underlying that premise was an absolute lack of understanding of how our own decisions can affect the world we live in on a daily basis. By not building in the costs of how our actions affect our environment, we've not only set in motion consequences that we can only imagine, we've also come to expect a certain quality of life that never should have been.

While there may be little we can do to stop or slow global climate change, there is certainly a lot that can be done to ensure that everyone not only has enough to eat, but that they are eating fresh and healthy food.

There was a time not too long ago when most households, if they had the space for it, had their own gardens. There were also local farmers that sold their food to their local communities. Communities worked together to harvest and store their local food, and if the harvests were good, they would have enough to make it through the winter. Somewhere along the way, though, people forgot how to grow their own food. They forgot where food comes from.

I believe we need to go back to a paradigm where everyone grows some of their own food. Aquaponics is one way to do this, and it offers the benefit of providing fish, too, but it's certainly not the only way and maybe not even the best way to grow food. In the end, it doesn't matter how the food is grown, so long as the methods used are sustainable and reproducible.

With this backyard production in place, local farmers can supplement with crops that are more suited to larger-scale production, like corn. Local farmers need to supply their local communities first, then provide any extra to neighboring communities who have need. I'm imagining some sort of global food bank database, where people, communities, and countries can all make requests for food or list their available surpluses. Something almost like a Craigslist for food. The hope is that the distance that food travels (foodshed) is greatly reduced.

Aquaponics is a great learning tool. My google news feed has many articles about schools installing aquaponic systems for classroom use, and many of the schools are using the food produced in their cafeterias. Let this continue and expand, so that our children know how to build and manage aquaponic systems and know how to grow their own food.

Farmers can benefit from a more systematic, planned approach, too. If they know their community and what people generally grown, they can tailor their crops to fill the gaps. They can even collaborate with other farmers to ensure that they won't be over- or under-producing any given crop.  The local food movement has done a great deal to bring the farmer back into the fold of the community, but this would complete that process.

There's probably a lot still left to be said, but I'm running out of steam, and I'm certain that if anyone made it this far, they'd probably appreciate a break anyway!

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