How Sustainable is Aquaponics?

1. Juli 2022

Aquaponics has quickly become a celebrity in sustainable food production. But whether it is really that sustainable and ethical, we want to find out more in this article.

Aquaponics definitely offers potential to produce food fish and vegetables sustainably and without pollutants. But it is equally important to adapt the setup to the landscape and available resources. In other words, there are many occasions where aquaponics is a viable option, but just not every one.

The basics

In terms of purely water-based food production, there are two main methods: hydroponics (hydroponics) and aquaculture (aquaponics). Hydroponics is a method in which plant food is grown in nutrient solution, often realized as a vertical farm.

The perfect cycle?

While aquaponics is certainly a promising alternative to conventional fish farming, it is not a perfect option. While it is a much more sustainable method of producing food, an aquaponic system must be regularly monitored and optimized by humans. At the same time, however, this can also provide better living conditions for the fish. Sufficient space, clean water and high quality feed are the guidelines here. Of course, in the end, the operators of the aquaponic facility are responsible for how the fish are doing. Therefore, we cannot and do not want to make an absolute statement here.

The statement that aquaponics is a closed-loop system is also only partially true. Most systems rely on importing fish feed. This causes both ongoing costs and a higher risk of contamination. Depending on the quality of the fish feed, water contamination is naturally more or less severe. If one relies on ecological and thus "clean" feed, the costs increase.
However, since large parts of the fish feed come from wild fisheries and from soybean fields, this is usually not particularly sustainable either.

In addition to fish, however, plants also play an important role in the aquaponics cycle. And here, too, it becomes apparent that the term "closed system" cannot be implemented in its entirety. Because, soil is soil, and is full of trace elements, symbiotic relationships and living things. An aquaponic system cannot provide this complexity. While fish manure is a great base fertilizer, most plants such as greens, tomatoes or cucumbers, are not meant to grow in water alone. Therefore, additional nutrients must be added to ensure flavor.

Photo by Hunter Brumels / Unsplash

Where aquaponics make sense

None of these issues just addressed say that aquaponics does not fit into modern, sustainable food production. Solar power provides renewable energy to minimize the cost of pumping water, both financially and environmentally. Food can come from clean, sustainable sources, such as black soldier fly larvae, worms, algae, aquatic plants, etc., depending on the fish. Fish manure is not the same as soil, but it is a good alternative to chemical fertilizers. Elements such as liquid compost can be added to make up for the missing nutrients.

Aquaponics is really worthwhile in urban areas, where the square footage must be kept to a minimum and production must be more intensive. In cities, growing beds can be stacked vertically above fish tanks, allowing much more food to be produced in the same area. By integrating it into a vertical farm, aquaponics offers advantages exactly where land and space are expensive. In such a location, this type of high-yield production plays a larger role than the variety of vegetables and fruits that a typical, well-designed permaculture site might have in the countryside.

Permaculture describes a sustainable agricultural concept based on mimicking the natural cycles of an ecosystem. It was developed in the 1970s as a counter design to industrial agriculture.

Back to aquaponics: These plants not only save space in urban areas. They also reduce transportation distances enormously. Another important point that justifies the viability of such a plant in urban areas.

Where it might be out of place

On the other hand, most aquaponic systems are not true ecosystems, so they are not capable of self-conditioning and self-sustaining. It is a man-made and man-operated agricultural system that requires a lot of time and attention. This is in complete contrast to, say, a dam or a series of ponds. These can be connected to form a self-sustaining system from which we can harvest plants, fish, crustaceans and abundant irrigation water. However, such a natural system also requires the right conditions, such as space, ponds and streams, as well as the right climate.

If the space is available for small ponds and dams, and the climate is suitable for high-yield plant breeding, then, of course, it makes much more sense to go this way. The investment, both monetary and time, is much less, while the yield is proportionately much greater. It is a better compromise for the environment, especially if they do not require imported resources (feed, fertilizer, etc.). In these systems, bait fish, crustaceans, insects and other fish food can be permanent components of the system, as well as waterfowl and aquatic plants. Fertilized water can still be used to irrigate floating and/or terrestrial gardens. The edges of ponds can be used as another highly productive area, similar to hydroponics. Here aquaponics is clearly at a disadvantage, but such conditions are also rare.

Photo by Tadeu Jnr / Unsplash

Is aquaponics the right choice?

Like any other permaculture technique, aquaponics is both the right choice and not the right choice at the same time, depending on the circumstances. It is a great way to grow fresh fish and fresh fruits and vegetables in urban areas, but it requires daily visits and constant attention, even if all the steps are automated. In the countryside, where space is not such a big issue, it doesn't have to be an aquaponic system in this style. However, in urban areas and suburban neighborhoods, where water is easier and cheaper to obtain, but space is much more expensive, than in the countryside, it could be just the thing.

What must be remembered is that aquaponics is not a magic answer to all the world's food problems, but simply another tool that can be used in the search for a better approach to human-planet coexistence.


Aquaculture Stewardship: Ethical, Humane, Conscientious Development. (2020, August 06). Retrieved November 11, 2020, from
Engels, J. (2018, April 20). Is Aquaponics the Right Choice? Retrieved November 11, 2020, from
Permaculture Masterclass: A Four-Part Series :: Video 1. (n.d.). Retrieved November 11, 2020, from


Tillmann Stickler

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