The Food Journal and Food, Nutrition & Science

An alliance between The Lempert Report and The Center for Food Integrity

Recirculating Farms Go Mainstream

Recirculating Farms Go Mainstream

In the News

November 27, 2011

Just a few years ago, it was difficult to imagine viable alternatives to ocean fish-farming. Recirculating aquaculture systems were the exception to the rule. But, in 2008, when a major push at the federal level to allow fin fish-farming in open ocean waters raised concerns from advocacy groups, like Food & Water Watch, a group of entrepreneurs, scientists and established growers got together to talk shop. The result of that important meeting was the formation of a coalition dedicated to making recirculating farm practices more widespread and commonplace.

After two years of research on guiding principles, goals and industry needs, the Recirculating Farms Coalition officially launched as a new organization in September of this year with the goal of developing eco-friendly, recirculating farms that use clean, recycled water in place of soil to grow plants (hydroponics), fish (aquaculture), or a combination of both (aquaponics). 

In the case of an aquaponic farm, for example, a tank of fish is connected to plant beds, so that water flows from the fish tank to the plant beds. The plants then act as natural filters for the fish water; they absorb nutrients from the water that they need to grow, and then the water is circulated back to the fish tanks, cleaned and ready for re-use. In farms that grow just plants or just fish, the filtering mechanism may be designed in any number of ways.
Most farms use some sort of pump to circulate the water. Many farms can run on very small amounts of energy or use renewable energy sources like solar, wind, or geothermal. Many farms also collect and re-purpose waste. Some use it as fertilizer for traditional soil agriculture – others process it into methane gas and use that to help power the farm. The possibilities are vast.

Marianne Cufone, Esq. Executive Director of the Recirculating Farms Coalition, says that the time is now for this type of agriculture. As seafood has become even more popular due to well-advertised health benefits and the search for Omega 3s, nature just can’t keep up with our demand. Recirculating farms, she says, are an innovative way to provide fresh, healthy, accessible food grown in a sustainable manner.
“More and more people understand that there is a relationship between good health and good food, and they are asking for healthier food, that is produced more naturally, to be more accessible. Well-designed recirculating farms are incredibly efficient, can use less water than most other farming methods and are both ecologically and economically sustainable. They are an investment in a healthy future,” says Cufone.
Because they are so versatile in size, shape and what they can grow, recirculating farms are especially useful in places where space is limited – like in urban areas where a large amount of food is needed. The closed-loop design also makes it possible for these farms to be located virtually anywhere – inside, outside, or some combination of both – and in otherwise unusable spaces. Notably, this means farms can be within the communities that will use the products. Additionally, being a closed system means it’s more difficult for pollutants, disease and parasites to get in.
“Well-designed farms can reuse up to 99% of the water put into the system and recycle waste too. Some farms re-purpose by-products as fertilizer for soil-grown plants or as food for fish that would naturally consume such products in the wild. Many farms are also addressing concerns about taking fish from the wild to feed farmed fish by growing their own small fish and exploring alternate but natural food sources like worms and algae,” says Cufone.
Cufone says that critics – and there are many – just haven’t taken the time to really look into recirculating farms, and like with any other industry, it can be done as green as possible or not – so regulation is key. The Coalition is now in the process of creating a map for their website that will show the various recirculating farms all around the U.S. It includes information about what type of recirculating system is used (hydroponic, aquaculture, or aquaponics), what they grow, and where the products are sold to help consumers access them more easily. They are also working on developing specific permitting requirements for these farms and labeling standards for their products. Another upcoming project is the building of a model farm in New Orleans. 

“Eating local and thinking global has become a more mainstream practice and people are calling for fresh food, grown and provided in a more eco-friendly manner. Slowly, it seems we are starting to redesign our food culture, moving away from factory farms and back toward sustainably grown, local, fresh food. Many people already frequent farmers markets and join in community-supported agriculture – essentially buying a share in a farm's products. So retailers are starting to carry more products that fit with this movement too,” says Cufone. “The key is to make such products affordable and accessible to everyone.”

With reduced costs for shipping, refrigeration and operations (like being able to rely on solar power rather than paying for conventional energy), recirculating farms can be a source of sustainable, affordable food, says Cufone. And she expects grocery stores to start carrying more of these products to meet customers' needs in the future. 

Cufone adds, “The good news for consumers is that when food from recirculating farms becomes more available – they will have better access to food that's good for them and our world.”

There are recirculating farms all around the country, in all different sizes and forms. Learn more about one of those farms – the Cabbage Hill Farm Foundation – here.