Environmental science has been on the fringes for a very long time, with big business and conspicuous consumption filling the world’s views and attitudes for a very long time. The knowledge and theories of environmental sciences have not changed much, but I see with some interest now that it is getting re-labelled to some extent. I do not necessarily see this a bad thing, but it has me thinking about things that got me exited about aquaponics in the beginning.
The catalyst for all this is the term “bio-mimicry”. Previously known as common sense to people like me, some of the central thinking of this “newish” field is to study nature and base design or processes on this. Do not try to fight nature in other words, but understand it, learn from it and implement its winning formulas when designing something which, in essence, have been honed in nature over millions or even billions of years. Perhaps environmental science should have been taught to designers all along. We would not have people building in flood plains or putting nuclear power stations right next to the sea in earthquake prone areas. We definitely would not have had all this monocropping agriculture with chemical fertilizer and pesticides and most importantly, we would not have this mass-hysteria about bacteria and marketing aimed at selling people stuff with which to attempt to banish the microbial world from your dwelling.
OK, hindsight is a wonderful thing, and people can call incorporating environmental science into design bio-mimicry if they really want to, but how can all of this be related back to aquaponics? Well, it is pretty much the “aquaponics is building an ecosystem” theory that I support. Some snippets that I want to throw out here in this first blog (each one is a book chapter on its own thus I will glance over it here) is perhaps some starter thoughts for people wanting to know how successful environmental (Nature) design compares to our AP systems. But what is successful design really. In the earth’s almost 4 billion years of life, there has been a massive ebb and flow of species design. Only a fraction of it is left, and most of the destruction of sometimes immensely superior beings came from Nature itself. We have been happily destroying biodiversity for only a moment compared to what has raged on this planet up to now. We all know the dinosaur story, and the plight of the previous masters of the open ocean, the ammonites. What happened to the world that these creatures inhabited? Well, it changed rapidly. Smart design can eventually give you a specialist species honed for a specific environment. Take away the environment, and the fancy species is doomed. That orchid that can only be pollinated by a single wasp species, or the mighty Clanwilliam Cedar that cannot survive a fire. It takes only a small mishap to take these species into extinction.
To see successful design, one has to think small. Smaller than insects, although they are pretty wonderful examples. What you need is life that is not all that dependant on other life. If it is in need of other organisms for survival, it should be similarly robust, plentiful and successful at dealing with a changing environment. The masters of this game is the life forms that were first recorded 3.8 billion years ago and are still at it today. Often unchanged, they persisted in habitats that are still around after all this time. Thus, for aquaponics to be successful at bio-mimicry, we need to look at the most successful organisms there is, and look at the type on environments that have allowed them an unchallenged run at survival since the dawn of life. Luckily for us, we are in the right place. For it is microbes we need to look at, and their habitats are well, almost everywhere. To narrow it down, I want to suggest that future AP bio-mimickers will be taking a very close look at sandy beaches, estuaries and floodplains. These are all environments in which both fish and plants occur, where nutrient inputs are typically quite high (although seasonal in many) and where the detrital recycling pathways – those microbes that take organic matter and return it to the environment as nutrients – is extremely important in the maintenance of productivity.
If I look at these systems, their functioning, and their seasonality, I wonder about the following topics:
• Sand as a media option, but coarse sand, not too fine
• Seasonal approaches to stocking rates, feeding rates or operating temperature
• Periodic, intentional shifts in pH
For obvious reasons, we try to explain aquaponics to people as a marriage between an aquaculture system and a hydroponics system. I do this too sometimes, but what I think people should do, is try to banish that thought. Both the former systems were out of sync with natural processes, while we try to bring a functional ecosystem to life in aquaponics. While most people venturing into aquaponics are from a “fish” or a “plant” background, I think a lot more effort is needed to get everyone into an “ecosystem” frame of mind when designing and operating aquaponic systems.