Can Aquaponics Help Fix Our Broken Food Chain?


“Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food.” ― Hippocrates

Since the beginning of civilization, plants have provided us with medicine and food that support our health at the most basic level. Unfortunately, conventional agricultural practices over the last fifty years have reversed this natural process, by growing unhealthy food that is directly responsible for the rise in food-related illnesses in this country.

Industrialized modern food production after World War II created a for-profit food chain, where corporations now control our food supply, resulting in almost 70% of the American diet being completely dependent upon three plant species: corn, soy, and wheat. Evolutionarily, our natural diet was composed of more than 80,000 different edible plant and animal species, so it stands to reason that a diet composed mostly of three staple crops does not provide the diversity that a healthy diet requires. Furthermore, processed and genetically engineered derivatives of these three major crops are hidden in the typical American diet, resulting in greater profits due to economy of scale and convenience.

There is no debate that food-related illnesses like cancer, obesity, and diabetes are on the rise among adults and children. According to the Center of Disease Control (CDC), approximately 17% (or 12.5 million) of children and adolescents aged two to nineteen years are obese, almost tripling the number since 1980. The obesity epidemic impacts every aspect of our society, including our public health system, the labor market and national security, with 27% of today’s young adults disqualified from service because they are too overweight to serve in the military.

The populations affected most by these food-related illnesses are minorities, with higher incidence and mortality rates for obesity, cardiovascular disease, hypertension, cancer, and Type II diabetes (due to economics rather than race).


Research shows that the largest predictor of obesity is lack of income. Unhealthy diets have been shown to be cheaper than healthy diets. Food-related illnesses, like Type-2 diabetes, have been associated with the intake of highly processed foods made from “cheap” corn and high fructose corn syrup. Furthermore, cows and chickens fed on corn and soy, rather than natural grass-fed diets, make higher caloric meat (and eggs) that contain more omega-6 fatty acids and fewer omega-3 fatty acids – dangerous ratios that have been shown to cause inflammation in humans and are directly linked to heart disease and cancer.

Today’s farm-raised fish are also fed on GMO corn- and soy-based diets and are less healthy in terms of human nutrition and omega-3 content compared to their wild-type counterparts. In addition, genetically modified (GMO) crops like soy and corn and their bound toxins (herbicides and pesticides) are now thought to trigger wheat gluten-related intestinal disorders!

When farm policies help subsidized commodity crops like corn, wheat and soy, it drives down the price of these products and it leads to higher calorie cheap food that flood the marketplace. As a result, battling obesity and other diet-related diseases will continue to increase, as will our national health bills of nearly $150 billion every year.

Fresh fruits and vegetables do not have to be more expensive than corn-laden food. If subsidies and insurance programs were also extended to these “specialty crop” producers, more people could afford these more healthful options. Until our farm policies align with our health policies, the first line of defense will require us to create and financially support local community programs and businesses (especially in low income neighborhoods and food desert areas) that focus on health education (to encourage healthy food choices and lifestyles) and that can provide access to healthy affordable foods within these underserved areas.


How does aquaponics fit in?

One urban practice that can help fix our broken food chain – by securing healthy food access locally – is a sustainable farming technique called aquaponics. Aquaponics combines the two well established practices of aquaculture & hydroponics to grow food in a closed-loop system that reduces the use of water resources, is soil-independent, and produces high yields of organic fish, vegetables, fruit and herb crops.

In aquaponics, the fish waste stream supplies natural organic nutrients for plant growth, while conserving water. Since it is a bio-mechanical artificial ecosystem that does not require soil, it is the perfect choice for intense urban agriculture production, where healthy land may not be accessible. Since the fish feed is what supplies nutrients to both the fish and the plants, choosing a healthy natural feed that is rich in omega-3 fatty acids and other essential nutrients can potentially boost the nutrient content of both the fish and produce.

Considering the fact that heavy metal toxicity of today’s fish supplies is rampant, and that nearly half the fish being sold on the market today have been deliberately mislabeled (a cheaper fish-substitute) to drive profits, growing organic fish aquaponically on natural fish feeds is a novel and healthy solution to today’s problematic fish and food industry model.



“If we are willing to work together and learn together, we can benefit from the mistakes of our time, and seeing with the eyes of compassion and understanding, we can offer the next century a beautiful garden and a clear path”

-Thich Nhat Hanh, Peace in Every Step

The long term negative effects of our broken food chain are just now beginning to surface, and now, more than ever, people need to start working together as community to support organic agricultural efforts like aquaponics – both locally and globally – in order to make the significant impacts that will be required to restore the health of our food system and the planet.


Read the 1st and 2nd post in this series

About the Author:

Rachel Tinker-Kulberg, Ph.D. is founder of AquaponicFood4Thought, LLC, and provides science or research support to teachers, organizations, and individuals trying to promote public awareness about healthy food choices and environmental sustainability by using Aquaponics as a project-based learning tool.

She is currently engaged in several Aquaponic builds throughout the Triad area that will serve to increase access to healthy food to the surrounding community while educating the users in sustainable farming techniques or simply serve to provide an aesthetic addition to their landscape or business space. She teaches Aquaponics workshops through Abundance NC at least twice a year. To learn more or contact her, please visit her websites at: or