A few months ago, the New York Times hosted an op-ed about vertical farming, which stacks several floors of hydroponic crops into tall buildings; now, it features in article about another version of hydroponic farming, known as aquaponics. (They stuck it in their “Home & Garden” section, though, and I doubt I’d have found it without the aid of Above the Fold.)

NYT’s Michael Tortorello describes Connecticut resident Rob Torcellini’s aquaponics setup as “either a glimpse at the the future of food growing or a very strang hobby – possibly both.” In an aquaponics setup, the waste from a tankful of fish provides nutrients to plants growing in tubs of water. According to Tortorello, aquaponics requires 80-90% less water than traditional growing methods.

Sylvia Bernstein, who helped develop a hydroponic product and has since become an aquaponics convert, explains on her Aquaponics Gardening Blog that it’s easier to get the nutrient mix right with aquaponics than with hydroponics. Since the plants’ nutrients come from fish waste, the system seems to eliminate (or at least dramatically reduce) the need for chemical fertilizers. Plus, the right kind of fish (like tilapia) will eat your table scraps.

So, will aquaponics be a big hit?

Tortorello explains that aquaponics has already caught on big in Australia, which has serious water-supply problems. Water shortages in parts of the western US might prompt some gardeners to try aquaponics, and the folks who are already setting up backyard chicken coops (which seems to be a trend) might be willing to branch out into tilapia-and-tomato systems.

But could aquaponics ever become responsible for a significant percentage of our food supply? If the twin trends of overfishing and increasing fish consumption continue, these kinds of setups might become the best way to meet the demand for fish. And if oil prices continue to rise, the agricultural model that relies on transporting food long distances will also face pressure to change. What seems like a strange hobby today might well be a necessity in the future.

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