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Why urban aquaponics could help the Philippines weather Covid-19

21 January 2021, at 12:01am

With pandemic-related lockdowns and ageing farmers putting pressure on the Philippines’ food system, researchers at BFAR are embracing urban aquaponics to shore up the islands’ food security.

BFAR has been promoting small scale urban aquaponics systems since the outbreak of Covid-19
BFAR has been promoting small scale urban aquaponics systems since the outbreak of Covid-19

© BFAR

“We’re looking at solar-powered urban aquaponics as an innovative way to ensure food security,” said Dr Joseph Rayos, senior aquaculturist at the Philippines’ Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR).

Speaking as part of the Infofish Sustainable aquaculture technologies webinar, Dr Rayos explained that BFAR is encouraging urban households to invest in small, solar-powered aquaponics systems as part of its Plant, Plant, Plant programme. The agency is hoping that aquaponics will allow the Philippines to pivot away from subsistence agriculture and provide a cost-effective way to improve food security. If applied on at a community level, the technology could shorten the food value chain and provide multiple downstream benefits for urban areas.

Resilience and the Filipino food system

Producing food in the Philippines has become more challenging. Due to population and development pressures, arable farmland and aquaculture zones in the Philippines are often converted to urban space, decreasing the available land for food production. There are demographic challenges as well. According to Dr Rayos, the average age of farmers is increasing and fewer young people are entering the sector. With fewer farmers and decreased arable space, the Philippines could face significant food security pressures.

BFAR’s aquaponics pitch

Dr Rayos explained that the pandemic has disrupted the global supply chain and revealed structural weaknesses in the food system. Urban aquaponics could form part of the “new normal” approach to food production. In theory, raising resilient fish like carp, tilapia and catfish with vegetables would provide households with a year-round food source and additional income stream – making families more food secure.

The BFAR chose aquaponics because it could address the existing challenges in the Philippines. The closed systems can be deployed in densely populated cities. From a sustainability standpoint, using urban spaces to produce food conserves arable land. Aquaponics also uses less water than conventional agriculture. In terms of production outputs, plants like lettuce, tomatoes and bell peppers tend to grow faster in aquaponic set-ups. Since the plants can use nutrients from fish waste as they grow, there’s no need for fertiliser.

For the solar-powered systems championed in the Plant, Plant, Plant programme, Rayos and his colleagues are hoping to keep construction costs low. Small systems that take up 1m² of floor space begin at $52 and can produce up to 75 catfish and 54 heads of lettuce per cycle. Larger systems could cost up to $2,000 and could support multiple families within a community. For Dr Rayos and the BFAR, the system is a win-win.

Dr Rayos told listeners that the ongoing pandemic has made people value their food more and take additional interest in how it is produced. Aquaponics could be an ideal solution for food insecurity that is widely accessible and incorporates innovative technology and sustainability.

The Sustainable aquaculture technologies webinar was part of InfoFish’s Technological Innovation Series 2021. Click here for more information about the series.