It is a rare skill to lead an organization like the Aquaponics Association in the midst of a global pandemic and in the face of an emerging market. Brian Filipowich has taken on this challenge as the Chairman of the Aquaponics Association and is also the Director of Anacostia Aquaponics in Washington, DC. He has worked for the U.S. Senate on banking and financial policy until 2015, then did a career one-eighty into aquaponics and sustainable agriculture. He currently lives in Washington, DC with his wife, daughter, cat, about 10 koi, and lots of plants.
I see invisible efficiencies sprouting out of every aquaponic system. It’s my hope I can help the aquaponics community quantify and communicate these efficiencies. Then, we can show policy-makers and the public that local aquaponics can solve many problems in our food system and economy.
The exciting thing about aquaponics is that it has distinct tracks: commercial growers; researchers; STEM educators; backyard growers and hobbyists; growers in the developing world; and others. (We even had a conference guest growing in North Korea!) There is overlap and information exchange between different types of growers, but each track has its own distinct development.
Overall, some recent trends include: the continued success of many commercial aquaponic farms; backyard growers achieving very large, consistent yields from low-cost systems; the rapid growth of aquaponics in schools and STEM education; automation for large farms; decoupled aquaponics for greater water control; and an interesting debate about aerobic vs. anaerobic digestion.
There has also been more formal recognition of aquaponics recently. The 2018 U.S. Farm Bill explicitly mentioned aquaponics; the first time it was mentioned in Federal legislation. And - as directed by the Farm Bill - the USDA is now establishing the new Office of Urban Agriculture and Innovative Production. This Office will focus on aquaponics and other modern agriculture techniques. Many localities are also now acknowledging aquaponics. For example: Phoenix, the U.S.’s 6th largest city, referenced aquaponics in its recently-approved 2025 Food Action Plan.
Circular logic: one major obstacle to more aquaponics is that we still need to understand the major obstacles better! There are several grants and surveys in the pipeline that specifically seek to understand the obstacles to more aquaponics. At last year’s conference at Kentucky State University we held breakout discussions among the different Working Groups to identify their obstacles and possible solutions.
We know that major obstacles include: large upfront costs before you even start growing; a long, steep learning curve; climate control and managing a system through the seasons; the lack of local training and supplies in many areas; and lack of public awareness about aquaponics and its benefits.
There is also a major undercurrent holding aquaponics back relating to my Aquaponics Superpower from Question #2: our modern agricultural-economic system is tilted heavily against local, efficient agriculture. We need to fix our economy so that efficient growers can monetize their efficiency. Aquaponic growers can grow with less space, less waste, less water, less food miles…. but basically all we get is a high-five.
Most of our produce comes from over 1,000 miles away and grown with harmful practices like excessive pesticide use, petroleum-produced fertilizers, excessive water use, toxic nutrient runoff, and food waste and spoilage. This system is loaded with hidden costs that only materialize over time. These costs include increased healthcare costs, costs to combat climate change, food waste, hypoxic dead zones in our waterways, biodiversity loss, and more. We have to employ methods like True Cost Accounting and Life Cycle Analysis to find and account for the true value of our food.
I believe all growing methods have positives and negatives. In some circumstances, hydroponics or soil will be right. I teach and am a big advocate for hydroponics. But, ultimately, if we are really going to maximize the efficiency of growing systems then aquaponics will be the best option because of the recirculating ecosystem and production of fish.
Future farmers will continually maximize the amount and variety that we can grow per square foot so that they save more land from agricultural development. By sparing more land, they will be allowing nature to regenerate itself.
This is an interesting question about regenerative agriculture. Aquaponic systems are container-based, and therefore do not directly contribute to soil regeneration as with Organic farming in soil. However, aquaponic, vertical, and other controlled-environment growing can produce far more per square foot than soil culture. Ironically, these “artificial” controlled-environments can save more of the natural land than growing outdoors in soil. It is going to take a lot of food and an impossible amount of land to feed 2 billion more humans by 2050. We will need aquaponics and controlled-environment agriculture. (Side note: many aquaponic growers release excess water and nutrients onto soil which can contribute to regenerative agriculture.)
Public and government recognition of aquaponics and its benefits, major financial backers interested in the long term success of aquaponics, and a full-time staff for the Aquaponics Association. Most aquaponic growers struggle financially in their quest toward sustainable agriculture and saving the planet - somebody needs to help us out!
I hope to continue pushing aquaponics until at least 33% of all U.S. produce and fish are grown in aquaponic systems within 100 miles of their consumers.