Agriculture has always been vulnerable to the elements. Crops depend on sunlight, nutrients, and water — and when they can’t get enough of these, they die. This summer’s serious drought reminds us about just how vulnerable our nation’s breadbasket is, and it should also serve as a wake-up call. We need to strengthen our domestic food production if we are to continue feeding ourselves in an increasingly erratic and extreme climate.
One way to make smart use of the water we do have is recirculating agriculture, which uses naturally cleaned and constantly recycled water in place of soil as the medium to grow food. There are several different types of recirculating farms: hydroponic farms grow plants, aquaculture farms raise fish; and aquaponic farms grow plants and raise fish together in the same system. Well-designed recirculating farms use much less water than soil-based farming, and of course, using less water makes a farm less vulnerable to drought.
Water shortages are not the only agricultural problem that recirculating farms can help to address. Factory farms in the United States are a major source of pollution. Chemical fertilizers and animal waste run off into streams and rivers, this may contribute to algal blooms that suck the oxygen out of water, creating dead zones where aquatic life cannot survive. There is no runoff with well-built recirculating farms; waste can be captured and reused – turned into fertilizer or energy instead of released into the environment. And many recirculating farms operate without any chemicals at all, particularly in aquaponic systems, where plant nutrients are provided by natural by-products from the fish.
Additionally, recirculating farms can be built virtually anywhere — outside, indoors, on paved lots or even rooftops. This versatility makes recirculating agriculture ideal for urban settings and means it can bring local fruits, vegetables, and herbs to neighborhoods that historically haven’t had much access to fresh, healthy foods.
We are not suggesting that recirculating agriculture will, or could, entirely replace soil-based agriculture. In fact, we strongly support and work with many organic and natural soil-based farms and farmers too. But, these unique water-based farms can be an important piece of a diverse food production system that can provide healthy, fresh food while protecting our environment — and do so even under unstable and extreme weather conditions. These are important considerations given current agricultural concerns – like the recent drought.