There’s an old Chinese proverb: “Give a man a fish you’ll feed him for a day, teach him how to fish, you’ll feed him for life.” That’s what Anubhav Das, 43, an aquaponics farmer, believes in. His quirkily named Red Otter Farms is the latest to join this small but growing breed of eco-friendly agriculturalists.
My introduction to Das came courtesy of the attractively packaged box of mixed greens that one of my son’s young friends insisted I try. I expected the garden-variety ‘salaad pattas’, so the fresh-looking leaves were a pleasant surprise. I discovered that the luscious greens were a product of aquaponics.
An ecologically sustainable model, aquaponics — not to be confused with hydroponics — combines hydroponics with aquaculture.
Hydroponics is the soil-less growing of plants, where soil is replaced with water (remember that money plant in a discarded booze bottle?). Aquaculture is the raising of fish. With aquaponics, you grow both fish and plants in one integrated eco-system.
So how exactly does this food-fish combo work? Das says it’s quite simple: The fish waste provides an organic food source for the plants, which in turn naturally filter the water for the fish, creating a balanced eco-system. There is a third participant: microbes or nitrifying bacteria that eventually convert the ammonia from the fish waste into nitrates which plants need to grow. Since both the fish and the plants can be used for consumption and income generation, the method delivers a two-fold benefit. Science for Stupid 101, right?
- The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) put out a technical paper in 2014, detailing the positives and negatives of the practice. Here are some:
- Higher yields (20-25% more) and qualitative production.
- Can be used on non-arable land such as deserts, degraded soil or salty, sandy islands.
- Creates little waste.
- Daily tasks, harvesting and planting are labour-saving and therefore can include all ages.
- Expensive initial startup costs compared with soil production or hydroponics.
- Knowledge of fish, bacteria and plant production is needed.
- Optimal temperature ranges needed (17-34*C).
- Mistakes or accidents can cause catastrophic collapse of system.
- Daily management is mandatory.
- Requires reliable access to electricity, fish seed and plant seeds.
- Alone, aquaponics will not provide a complete diet.
Red Otter Farms is in Kotabagh a tiny hamlet near Corbett Park, Uttarakhand. They currently have salad subscriber boxes and are available in specialty food stores in Delhi-NCR. With the hugely experienced chef Bakshish Dean on board, Red Otter also plans to start including recipes and cooking ideas in the boxes.
In 2016, Sushant Madaan started Urban Kheti, north India’s first aquaponics farm near Sohna in Gurugram. They produce soft herbs like mint, basil and coriander as well as everyday veggies like tomato and lady’s finger.
South India has led the way, with aquaponics. Cherai, a coastal village near Kochi has over 200 projects. In 2016, spurred by low crop yield due to over farming of soil, the Pallipuram Service Cooperative Bank launched an aquaponics project.
Bengaluru-based Madhavi Farms has long been associated with the growing of plants and herbs for the medical and perfume industries. In 2017, it began its aquaponic operations. In collaboration with Waterfarmers, a Canadian company that has set up projects in Hong Kong, China, Oman and Australia, Madhavi Farms’ homegrown brand Satvik Sabji has been delivering salad greens, herbs, and veggies like tomatoes and cauliflower locally.
It’s not just home home chefs who are trying it out. Chef Madhu W. Krishnan, Executive Chef, Research & Development, ITC Hotels, is enthusiastic about having these choices. “In terms of taste, quality and appearance, aquaponically grown produce relies solely on naturally produced fertilisers. This ensures plants get macro- and micro-nutrients, making the produce nutrient-dense and improving sensory credentials,” she says.
For instance, at the new ITC Royal Bengal in Kolkata, a plant-forward shiitake and aquaponic red spinach burger is a hit. Other aquaponic stars include morning glory, cress, pok choi as well as a variety of greens and leaves that are integrated into stir-fries, stews and casseroles. Madhu says it’s about supporting local producers and farmers and being more environmentally responsible. “Chefs play a key role in creating awareness, influencing and inspiring their diners to reconsider their sourcing approach,” he says.
Das is considering doubling his green house space to 20,000 sq ft. While technically aquaponic produce is not labelled “organic” — by definition this includes the role of soil—they are pesticide-free. Over the years he’s come up with localized solutions that suit specific geographies. In Kota Bagh, for instance, he uses local varieties of carp and Catla fish and in his next aquaponic venture up in the Himalayas, he intends to use trout.
He admits to having had some hits and misses along the way, adding laughingly, “If all else fails, I have become a qualified plumber!”