Arduino-based Aquaponics Hold Promise

For the last ten years or so, I’ve read a lot about the politics of food. The industry is totally messed up, with systemic problems in production and distribution. Did you know that a fast food hamburger likely contains meat from over 50 different cows? Gross.

This is not news. For years, the slowfood loving locavores have been watching GMOs, supporting CSAs, and creating a growing subculture that demands fresh, nutritious, locally-produced food. And they can usually afford to pay for it, when it’s available. But it’s not available everywhere.

Food deserts are a big problem

Loosely defined, a food desert is an area where the population does not have access to nutritious food. The premise is that rural areas and inner-city neighborhoods have a disproportionately low number of supermarkets and other places to get high quality food. In these areas, the most common sources of food are “gas stations, convenience stores, tobacco stores, drugstores, and liquor stores. A diet based on foods from these locations consists primarily of processed foods high in calories, sugars, salt, fat, and artificial ingredients.” (link)

Not good, right? But the problem might be more widespread than we think. Depending on the method of data analysis at the neighborhood level, actual food deserts may be underreported. For example, studying a neighborhood’s business composition based on NAICS codes will show that “small corner grocery stores are statistically lumped together with supermarkets, such as Safeway, Whole Foods Market, etc. In other words, a community with no supermarket and two corner grocery stores that offer liquor and food would be counted as having two retail food outlets even though the food offered may be extremely limited and consist mainly of junk food.” (link)

Luckily, food deserts are a problem with a lot of practical solutions. Here in Houston, non-profit Urban Harvest provides a lot of great programs for nutrition education and access to fresh food. They even have a community gardens project. It’s an uphill battle, waged on several fronts, but it’s a worthy fight. Still, are we doing all we can to bring good food into the desert?

Urban farms need to think beyond the land

The rural life has a lot of appeal to city dwellers. It’s been that way for a while. The quiet, wide open spaces of a farm are the exact opposite of life inside a city, so the attraction makes a lot of sense. However, the goal of most urban farms is not to capture rural farm life, but to harness food production and distribution at a hyper-local level. To do that, urban farms need to think beyond the land.

Land, especially land inside of a city, is expensive. Its efficiency at growing crops is also debatable. And if that land increases in value, or real estate developers build a townhome next door that blocks the sun, it’s pretty tough to uproot the farming operation.

There are also risks of contaminated soil. In most industrialized cities, and especially in Houston, we’ve been dumping toxic shit in our own backyard for generations. The land also needs protection from animals, pests, vagrants, and poachers. It can be a lot of work.

Why I like aquaponics

Aquaponics is a self-contained food system that consists of fish, bacteria, and plants. The fish produce waste in their water, which is pumped through nitrogen-fixing bacteria, and then used as plant water. From there, the plants filter out the toxins, and the clean water is returned to the fishtank.

Like hydroponic systems, aquaponic systems do not require soil, which is important for several reasons. You can grow plants in a more dense arrangement because the root system extends straight down (rather than out to the sides in search of food). You can also create a system that is not tied to real estate or contaminated soil. If necessary, aquaponic systems can be moved to lower-value real estate as neighborhoods gentrify, or as food deserts change.

But mostly, I like aquaponics because it is on the cusp of an amazing intersection of food production and technology. Check out what robotics engineer Eric Maundu is doing in West Oakland (well worth the full 13 minutes):

And even though aquaponics has been around for centuries, adding sensors and an Arduino controller undoubtedly improves system management. So I am curious about the business case of scaling an Arduino-powered aquaponic farm beyond the hobbyist world.

There seem to be a few strikes against the concept right out of the gate:

  • It costs a lot to get started
  • The technical knowledge may be too sophisticated for most urban farmers
  • Since the technology is in the hobbist realm, there are very few user-friendly, off-the-shelf kits
  • Even Eric Maundu admits that he is having trouble running this project as a business

But there are also noble reasons to keep exploring the possibilities. What would happen if we had scalable, movable aquaponic farms that could be dropped in the middle of food deserts across the city? Can new technologies, trends, and shifting market needs make these old concepts efficient and scalable enough to begin addressing the enormous food desert problem?

Jeff Reichman

Jeff is passionate about data. He founded January Advisors, and serves on the board of two Houston nonprofits. Read his full bio on LinkedIn.