Aquaponics vs. Traditional Farming: Differences Explained


Aquaponics is a farming system reliant on a symbiotic relationship between aquatic creatures and plants where the creatures supply nutrients and plants purify the water. On the other hand, traditional farming is a type of farming where plants grow in soil with the help of fertilizers. So what are the main differences between these two types of farming? 

In aquaponics, no foreign substances such as fertilizers are added to the ecosystem, while traditional farming relies on fertilizers. Unlike traditional farming, aquaponic-grown plants don’t require regular watering or soil and can be grown anywhere. 

This article discusses the differences between aquaponics and traditional farming and explains their pros and cons. I’ll also discuss the various challenges that come with both methods. 

Aquaponics Explained

Aquaponics is a farming method where plants feed on nutrients from fish or other aquatic creatures directly through the water. Therefore, you don’t need to use soil to nourish your plants with the aquaponics system. Instead, the plants’ roots sit in the water, absorbing natural fertilizers from fish excrement.

An aquaponic system collects fish or shrimp poop that can quickly build up in a fish tank. The waste is then siphoned out to feed plants located in a separate tank. 

Although this waste buildup can be harmful to fish when you leave it in their environment, it contains crucial nutrients like ammonia, which nitrifying bacteria and plants need to stay healthy. So, with aquaponics, you can eliminate the need for chemical fertilizers. 

This system uses nitrifying bacteria and plants to filter out your fish tank’s water, and then the fish provide more fertilizers for the plants as they poop. The cycle continues, creating an interdependent ecosystem between the plants and the fish.

Traditional Farming Explained

Also referred to as soil farming, traditional farming is the most common way to grow crops. 

Traditional farming includes growing plants for consumption in the soil, done by digging and planting a seed into the ground. 

The seed is then nurtured to a mature plant to be harvested and sold as food. Soils have billions of microorganisms that affect their nutrient availability, fertility, porosity, pH levels, and moisture. 

Microorganisms are crucial for the successful development of plants, and this microbiome virtually makes the soil a living being. If there is a lack of nutrients, you can supplement the dirt by adding chemical fertilizers, pesticides, and insecticides.

Besides soil, traditional farming also relies on rainfall as a water source.

Differences Between Aquaponics and Traditional Farming

Aquaponics is a newer model of farming. This water-based growing method was first developed to solve emerging challenges of modern agriculture, such as urbanization. Although the aim is ultimately the same- to grow food- the methods used in aquaponics and traditional farming are different.

Source of Nutrients

Traditional farming relies on nutrients from the soil where microbes nourish the ground or from fertilizer input. 

Aquaponics, however, depends on fish waste as a nutrient source for the plants. Therefore, nutrients in aquaponics are from within the system, while traditional farming may need further nutrient input.

Microbial Communities

The tiny organisms that inhabit soil and water in aquaponics and traditional farming are crucial to plant growth. Proponents of soil farming have argued that dirt has a wider variety of these microbes. However, essential bacteria like Nitrosomonas and Nitrobacter aid in the nitrogen cycle and can also be found in water.

Light Sources

Light is essential for growing plants since photosynthesis is how our green-leafed friends flourish. 

For aquaponics and traditional farming, the sun is the primary source of light needed to grow the plants. However, plants grown in aquaponics can receive light from grow lights as an alternative to sunlight. This versatility makes aquaponics much more sustainable, especially when growing plants during winter. 

Energy Sources

Traditional farming uses tractors or other heavy farm equipment to till the soil on a large scale. There’s also a lot of physical activities required to plant and harvest. 

On the other hand, aquaponics relies on more technical input from humans as it’s mostly about suspending plants on rafts and ensuring that there’s enough electricity to pump water and maintain the ecosystem. 

So, essentially, aquaponics uses electricity, while traditional farming uses fossil fuel and human labor.

Structural Support

For plants to thrive, they need structural support, which helps them maintain their shape. 

In traditional farming, it’s a lot easier for plants to grow upright as they’re deeply rooted in soil. However, plants need extra help in aquaponics as their roots are suspended on water and not on dirt. For that reason, creating trellises and using stakes is much more crucial when growing plants in aquaponics. 

Temperature Conditions

Since plants in traditional farming are exposed to the outdoors, they are at the mercy of an area’s environmental conditions. For that reason, the kinds of crops you can grow in traditional farming are usually limited to those that can survive the weather where you live. 

However, in aquaponics, you have complete control of temperature conditions to adjust them to suitable levels. You can easily change your system to match the temperature needs of the plants you’re growing, making a multi-season harvest possible, even when your garden is indoors. 

Location Limitations

By design, plants can only survive in areas with fertile soils and water. There’s no quick fix to improve the earth if it’s not fertile in traditional farming. Some locations also prevent you from growing specific types of plants, more so if they’re not suited to the climate. 

On the other hand, you can farm using aquaponics from any location, regardless of environmental or soil conditions. Aquaponics is not limited to place, as with traditional farming. So, aquaponics is an ideal pick for farmers who want to grow anything regardless of climate or fertility. 

Land Size Requirements

You only require a small piece of land to set up an aquaponics farm. The only thing you’ll need to do is choose a strategic location and ensure it’s large enough to support your aquaponics system. There’s no risk of plants competing for nutrients, as the waste from fish and other creatures will act as a rich source of nutrients. 

However, you’ll need to consider factors such as land size before deciding what to plant with traditional farming. Plant roots spread on the soil, and to prevent competition for nutrients, you’ll need to limit the number of plants on a single parcel of land. 

Scalability

Since traditional farming has been the most popular method for a long time, large chunks of land are usually allocated for soil farming. 

Scaling up aquaponics can be challenging, especially if your farm is in an urban area where building codes limit growth. Traditional agriculture is hence more scalable than aquaponics.

Water Management

Traditional farms require a lot of water to sustain, while only a tiny amount of it is absorbed by plants. Due to runoff and the absorption of natural earth, you can lose a lot of water with traditional farming, which is not ideal when gardening in arid and semi-arid areas. 

On the flip side, aquaponic systems save up to 90% of the water used, with only 10% of the water utilized by plants. So, aquaponics is much more water-efficient than traditional farming.

Impact on the Environment

Aquaponic systems use pumps and heaters, which reduce carbon emissions. Additionally, no toxins from fertilizers or pesticides are released into the ecosystem when choosing aquaponics.

In comparison, traditional farming relies heavily on fertilizers and insecticides to boost the growth of plants in farms. While this might promote plant growth, the toxins released from chemicals seep into the soil and contaminate plants, leading to long-term health risks for thousands of people. 

Care and Maintenance

In traditional farming, you have to till the ground and prepare the soil for planting. You must also constantly water the crops, periodically apply fertilizer, and weed out unwanted plants throughout the planting period. 

This extensive amount of care is not necessary for aquaponics. That’s because aquaponic plants grow in nutrient-rich water with no risk of weeds. 

Your only work will be to monitor the system and make necessary adjustments to ensure the environment inside is suitable for both plants and animals. Still, you’ll also need to have your system serviced by an expert depending on the size and amount of plants and aquatic animals you have. 

Benefits of Aquaponics

Sustainable Source of Income

In aquaponics, you get to farm and harvest both crops and fish simultaneously. Input costs are mostly limited to fish food and regular maintenance, meaning you will have a good source of income harvesting both fish and produce. Therefore, the ecosystem is sustainable, as it has no negative impacts on the immediate environment. 

Increased Plant Growth

Aquaponic plants receive nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorus directly from the source with no wastage experienced in the system. No nutrient wastage means plants grow up to 3 times faster than when the same plants are grown in soil. For rapid plant growth, aquaponics is the way to go.

Healthy Fish

Crops and fish reared in aquaponic farms are not exposed to toxins like their counterparts in pollution-affected seas and rivers. 

You have absolute control over what goes into the system when using a tank. Therefore, you can prevent the system from getting contaminated. Aquaponics thus gives healthy food and creates a healthy lifestyle.

Reduced Water Usage

According to the UN, about 2 billion people worldwide experience difficulty accessing clean water, which can cause food scarcity. With only 10% water usage, aquaponics saves on water and can help in fighting food shortages. You won’t need to use as much water with aquaponics as you would when farming traditionally. 

No Waste Products

Aquaponics is a closed-loop system whereby 70% of a fish’s feces are reused as plant nutrients. You can also reuse the remaining sludge to fertilize horticultural crops and organic trees. Setting up an aquaponic system allows you to capitalize on the best of both worlds, the purifying attributes of water and the ongoing nutrition provided by aquatic creatures. 

Reduced Cost of Food

Since crops can be grown from any location in aquaponics, they can be grown closer to consumers. The result is the elimination or reduction of costs such as transport that add to the cost of food. 

You also don’t have to buy fertilizers when using an aquaponic system, adding to the overall reduced food price. This attribute can especially come in handy when farming in arid and semi-arid areas where produce prices are usually higher.

Can Grow in Challenging Conditions

Because aquaponics doesn’t rely on soil, you can set it up in areas where soil and weather conditions are unfavorable for planting. 

You can, therefore, use aquaponics to increase food security. Aquaponics can also be set up in urban areas where large chunks of land are unavailable for farming. 

Source of Organic Fertilizer

Fish poop is nutrient-rich and the source of nutrition for your aquaponic-grown plants. In addition, since you can contain aquaponic systems indoors, you can also eliminate pests, keeping your crops safe from anything that could harm them. 

So, you won’t have to worry about the dangerous effects of using chemical fertilizer and herbicides on your aquaponic farm.

Always Ready Food

You can set up an aquaponics farm in your backyard and get food for your family or supply local stores all year round. Plants and fish grown in aquaponic farms grow faster than those produced in traditional settings, making year-round harvesting possible.  

Benefits of Traditional Farming

It Is Well-Established

Since traditional farming has been practiced for a long time, it has been refined over the years. Modern farming techniques have made conventional agriculture more efficient, with transportation networks and ready markets giving it a sense of reliability and sustainability. 

Information Is Readily Available

Farming has always been an essential part of what makes us human, and there are tons of resources out there to help start-up farmers learn about the best ways to grow crops. 

This information is readily available, making it easier for farmers to get into agriculture. Traditional farming is often handed down from generation to generation, ensuring farmers know the ins and outs before sowing their first seed.

The Cost of Starting and Maintaining a Traditional Farm Is Low

The costs of setting up a traditional soil farm can be relatively low if the terrain is favorable for farming. Maintaining a conventional farm also isn’t demanding, especially for small-scale agriculture. It is, therefore, favorable if you are new to agriculture or if you only want a private garden for personal use.

Most Crops Can Grow on Soil

Plants grow in the ground naturally– there are no two ways about it. So, sowing your crops on soil is sometimes the easiest way to get a harvest.

The majority of crops can grow well on the ground. In addition, plant species that require more rooting thrive better with traditional farming. Some farmers also argue that some crops grow better in soil due to the wide variety of nutrients available.

Crops Grown Are More Resilient

Exposure to harsh weather conditions, weeds, and pests makes plants more resilient in the soil. Soil also has many naturally occurring nutrients and microbes that support healthy plant growth during different seasons. 

More Job Opportunities

Large-scale traditional farming is a source of employment for many people. These are people working on the farm, in factories packaging food, transporting food, and selling the food for consumption. Fertilizer manufacturers also employ people to work in their factories to earn a living.

Challenges of Aquaponics

Aquaponics has its challenges that you will need to overcome when you set it up.

A Limited Number of Crops Can Be Grown

If you have limited space to set up your aquaponics farm, there are only so many plants you can grow on it. So, most of the time, you can’t achieve large-scale food production with an aquaponic farm. Instead, you’ll likely have a smaller garden with more produce yields since the plants will be able to survive year-round.

A Small Variety of Crops Can Be Grown

Apart from the number of crops, some plant varieties cannot grow well in an aquaponics farm. It can be difficult or impossible to produce larger crops such as corn, grasses, trees, and root veggies since they will grow much better in soil. 

Therefore, you will be limited to a specific variety of crops to grow with an aquaponic system.

Information Isn’t Readily Available

Aquaponics is a relatively new farming method, and information isn’t readily available. Fewer farmers are practicing this kind of farming, making setting up an aquaponic system challenging, especially if you are new to agriculture.

Need To Be Professionally Installed

Farming with aquaponics is complex and requires a professional to maintain the system. Your fish and plants can die if you don’t install your system correctly, so having it set up by a professional is usually the best way to get started.

Aquaponics Is Not Easy To Maintain

Maintaining an aquaponic system can be demanding since you have to take care of your plants and fish simultaneously. 

Each of these has unique requirements and needs constant monitoring to develop well. You also have to make sure the system is clean to prevent pathogens and infestation, which is bad news for your plants and fish. 

Expensive To Set Up and Maintain

Since this is a relatively new farming technique, few professionals are in the field, making it expensive to hire one. Buying related equipment such as fish tanks can also be costly. Recurring costs such as fish food are also high, which you need to factor in when budgeting.

Need for Constant Electric Supply

Your fish tanks need to maintain specific temperatures throughout the day to keep your fish happy and healthy. 

Maintaining a constant temperature requires a continuous electricity supply. In addition, filtration and water pumping systems need power to run. So, it would be best to factor in energy costs when preparing to set up an aquaponics system at home. 

Nutrient Deficiency Can Occur

Plants need some nutrients such as Iron, Potassium, Calcium, and Phosphorus, but fish don’t require them. That makes it necessary to add supplements such as rock phosphate, calcium chloride, potassium chloride, and chelated iron to supply these nutrients to your plants.

Challenges of Traditional Farming

Dependent on Weather Conditions

Traditional farming means planting your crops outdoors. Your plants are exposed to different weather conditions, such as heavy rainfall or sunlight, when you do so. These conditions can cause various issues, such as broken stems, soil erosion, sunburns, and many other problems.

Some plants may also not grow in certain weather conditions, meaning you have to choose specific crops that suit your climate.

Dependent on Favorable Terrain

Good soils are essential for growing plants the traditional way. Most plants cannot grow well in rocky terrain or sandy and clay-based soils. Some plants also thrive in highlands, while others grow well in coastal lowlands. You, therefore, need to have land with favorable terrain for your plants to thrive.

Prone to Weeds

One major setback of soil farming is that you will have to deal with weeds at some point. Weeds take away the nutrients your crops require to grow and can cause them to mature slowly. Dealing with weeds on your farm can also prove to be costly and labor-intensive. 

Prone to Pests

Like weeds, pests also threaten your crops since they are exposed to the outdoors. Insects and wild animals can eat up your produce and make your harvests meager. In addition, eradicating pests can also require a lot of labor and money. So, be prepared to defend your plants when you put them outside!

Toxic Herbicides and Pesticides

Herbicides and pesticides are effective in weed and pest control, but they can also be harmful to the environment and people. 

Traditional farmers always have to balance a fine line between using toxic pesticides or watching their crops get eaten up by wild animals and insects. So, you’ll always have to renegotiate with the environment to keep yourself and the environment safe from the chemicals you use to ensure a healthy harvest. 

Growing Urbanization

Large-scale food production using traditional farming methods is becoming more threatened with increased urbanization. Farmlands are being converted into towns and cities as populations increase globally. Urbanization has contributed to inventing new farming techniques like aquaponics that you can comfortably do in urban areas.

Is Aquaponics Superior to Traditional Farming?

Aquaponics is not superior to traditional farming since both have pros and cons. Though aquaponics has some notable advantages compared to traditional agriculture, there is no one-size-fits-all farming method. 

Aquaponics is a good choice for farming in urban areas where building codes and land size create limitations. Aquaponics is a great way to grow food at home if you have a stable electricity supply and adequate startup capital. 

Still, maintaining an aquaponics farm can be labor intensive and will require the assistance of a professional.

On the other hand, traditional farming is better suited for you if you have ample farmland. It also doesn’t require much start-up capital, and knowledge is readily available if you want to learn more. 

However, traditional farming can take a long time to bring returns as plants grow a lot slower in soil and face the threat of bad weather or pests.

You can, therefore, choose either aquaponics or traditional farming, depending on your specific needs. However, if you have ample farmland and enough capital, you can mix the two. Practicing aquaponics and conventional agriculture can capitalize on the strengths of both methods and keep your farm running no matter what happens.

Conclusion

Aquaponics is a newer method of farming than traditional agriculture, and they both have their own unique advantages and disadvantages. 

Food grown in an aquaponics farm matures faster than in a traditional farm, but you’ll need to keep a close eye on how you feed your fish to ensure a balanced circulation of nutrients. 

However, it’s easier and cheaper to start a traditional soil farm, although you may have to fight pests and the weather to keep your harvest large. 

Still, there is no superior farming method between the two. If you are not limited by capital or land size, you can undertake both and maximize their advantages.

Alexander Picot

Alexander Picot is the principal creator of TheGrowingLeaf.com, a website dedicated to gardening tips. Inspired by his mother’s love of gardening, Alex has a passion for taking care of plants and turning backyards into feel-good places and loves to share his experience with the rest of the world.

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