This article is part of our special report Short food supply chains in Europe’s North.
Implementing combined fish and vegetable farming system provides the food transparency and local production customers are asking for, say the supporters of aquaponic farming.
“What we see is that a growing number of customers want to know where their food comes from and how it is being produced,” Nicholas Leschke, CEO of Berlin-based ECF aquaponic farm system, told EURACTIV.com.
“And this goes with the organic trends, that is, producing food without using hormones, pesticides and antibiotics,” he added.
“We are being very transparent, we organise visits where you can see everything and we explain how we produce our food. The fact that we also sell directly to customers as well as local supermarkets improves the transparency customers are looking for,” Lescke continued.
Aquaponics is a system that farms fish and vegetables in water. It uses fish and vegetable production in a combination in which plants are fed the fish discharge. In return, the vegetables clean the water that goes back to the fish.
For Australia-based and globally renowned Permaculture Research Institute, aquaponics represents a big hope for sustainable organic crop and fish production. This is because the fish waste is recycled and used for plant growth instead of throwing it back into the environment. The water is recirculated in a closed system lowering the consumption of this resource.
Lescke pointed out that conventional agriculture accounts for 70% of global water withdrawal and 24% of greenhouse gas emissions, while 77% of global fishing stocks monitored by the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organisation are either depleted, over-exploited or fully exploited — with only 1% of those stocks in recovery from depletion.
According to the growing number of supporters around the globe, the aquaponic farming system helps to considerably reduce the environmental impact of conventional fish farming.
They point out the crowding together of thousands of fish in their artificial environment, with waste products, including feces, uneaten food, and dead fish, being flushed into ecologically fragile coastal waters, destroying local ecosystems.
Furthermore, waste from the excessive number of fish can cause huge blankets of green slime on the water’s surface, depleting it of oxygen and killing much of the life in the water, they argue.
Bioeconomy at a regional level
Customers’ demand to have food transparency and a sustainable, local production is by no means limited to Berlin.
“In Belgium, in Germany, elsewhere in Europe, customers want a real taste experience, they want food with real nutritional value. And they associate all that with short food supply chain,” Steven Beckers, architect and founder of BIGH (Building Integrated GreenHouses), explained to EURACTIV.
His company is in charge of the Abattoir project, one of the biggest urban markets in Europe built in an old slaughterhouse in Brussels. It uses the aquaponic technology developed by the ECF Farm in Berlin.
The architect notes a real interest in the Scandinavian countries for the implementation of the aquaponic farming system, while there are two potential projects in Paris being currently discussed and one in Milan.
“At the end of the day, it’s about re-connecting producers and consumers as well as re-localising agricultural and food production,” he continued.
The architect also underlined the added value of short food supply chain within a region.
“They have specific social and economic impacts at the regional level because they turn out to be both beneficial for farmers and customers,” he said.
“Our approach is to be part of the social and solidarity economy. We want to provide jobs for the people in the region and bring back economic life in otherwise neglected areas,” Steven Beckers added.
And this can easily be done in cities as well as in rural areas, Leschke explained. “Aquaponic farms can be built anywhere, it is not restricted to cities and urban areas,” he said.
Asked how Europe can act to promote this short food supply chain farming system, both Nicholas Leschke and Steven Beckers said an organic label would help.
“In the US, our food would be labelled organic. In the EU, it is not because the organic label only applies to soil production. And aquaponics does not use soil but water,” Beckers said.
Leschke also suggested a proper certification for aquaponic products.
Short food supply chain is increasingly identified in Northern Europe as an efficient way to square the environmental circle in the agricultural production while meeting customers’ growing demand for more food transparency and local production.
Due to its weather conditions, agriculture in Northern Europe is predominantly characterized by the uses of greenhouses, which in turn sparks a number of environmental issues such as energy consumption, the use of natural resources, agricultural waste management and the distribution of agricultural goods to food manufacturers and to customers.
They, in turn, are more and more demanding about where their food comes from and how it is being produced. This is because of the numerous food scandals that have emerged throughout Europe in the last decade.
In the EU, short food supply chain is understood as being the chains in which foods involved are identified by, and traceable to a farmer and for which the number of intermediaries between farmer and consumer should be minimal or ideally nil.
Several types of short food supply chain can be identified, for example, CSAs (Community-Supported Agriculture), on-farm sales, off-farm schemes (farmers markets, delivery schemes), collective sales in particular towards public institutions, being mostly proximity sales.
They all aim at reducing dependence on natural resources, supporting the conversion of renewable resources into food, as well as putting together demands for sustainable agriculture and fisheries, food safety, while at the same time protecting biodiversity and environment.