Aquafarm 2018: Some Highlights

It’s over a week ago since Aquafarm 2018 ended. My last article was a quick overview of what I saw there. This article will go into more depth about some of the talks that gave me some new ideas.

Peter Jens – Organic legislation, a public good or a tug-of-war?

Why the Trabant? Peter mentioned how current solutions aren’t using the available know-how. There are many ways of having a Trabant, but it’s still a Trabant.

Although this session was more on legislation than on technical matters, there were still some interesting technical points and approaches Peter made.

Peter’s first point was that diversity was the only natural nature, but that perhaps true nature shouldn’t be the goal. Anyway, in human hands, nothing is natural. That said, we can use mechanisms from nature and ecosystems to improve our yields. Plants are clever. Unlike animals, they don’t have the option to run away – so they have to be ready for anything, and so nature has tried virtually everything.

For example, plants have mechanisms to tell birds to eat the caterpillars munching on them. Another example is a recent discovery by AND Biopharma, called DNA self-toxicity. Some organisms, when exposed to their own DNA, are harmed. When nematodes eat their own DNA, their growth is slowed.

Oh, and as for legislation: one big point – don’t politicise these decisions.

Seppe Salari – Algae, Mushrooms, Insects: integrating the circular economy approach into vertical farming

Seppe introducing the idea behind AMI.

Seppe walked us through the classic story of the circular economy applied to farming: one organism’s trash is another organism’s treasure. This principle is going to be used by Seppe’s company, SmartCrops, to grow food on waste using aquaponics, mushrooms, and insects (AMI). It’s also a principle which I am helping to quantify in the AVF’s white paper on The Abattoir.

What amazed me is how much can be done with every waste stream, and how much value is still in there. For example, the waste left behind by black soldier flies can be fed to worms, producing more fish feed as well as high-quality fertiliser for algae, which can in turn be fed to fish. Alternatively, BSF waste can be fed to mushrooms or even directly used as plant fertiliser. There are a lot of options, which should lead to a more flexible and robust system as a whole – even more so if each subsystem is decoupled.

Mark Horler – Soy Vertical Farming – Walking Unconventional Paths

Mark highlighted a crucial point in Dickson Despommier’s The Vertical Farm: vertical farming can free up agricultural land, which can be given back to ecosystems and thereby sequester huge amounts of carbon. This is a point that has been forgotten by the vertical farming community. It’s a point that has always drawn me, which is why the background of my blog is a bird’s eye view of a forest. We need to look at the bigger picture.

If we are going to free significant amounts of our land from agriculture, we will have to move beyond leafy greens and microgreens. Soy is currently one of the most damaging crops grown worldwide, due to the large amounts of pesticides used to grow it. It’s also the most practical commodity crop for vertical farms since it is neither prickly nor tall.

With The Soya Project, Mark wants to take the road not taken. This is something that can’t be done alone, so Mark is looking for the help to carry out research and define the next steps. Whatever happens, there should be a lot to learn from this.

Saverio Panata – Towards collaborative agriculture. Carlo Ratti Associati presents the Hortus project

There would be cameras above these plants, so that they could be remotely monitored.

Usually I am quite sceptical about pretty buildings full of plants. Although they are beautiful, they don’t take into account the realities of farming, coming across as too utopian for my liking. So when someone from an architecture firm was on the programme, I was a little unsure.

However, the concept presented here had some clear benefits. It was clearly not aimed at maximising production, but more on engaging people with the joy of growing food with minimal effort. People can plant a seed and then place their rockwool cube in on a sort of conveyor belt, if you will. Then they can watch the whole thing grow through an app, as cameras are installed above the seedlings.

Marco Gioacchino Pistrin

The legendary lumpsucker!

Originally Marco wasn’t on the programme, but it’s great that he could speak at Aquafarm. Marco’s entertaining talk was about integrated multi-trophic aquaculture (IMTA), a term he is proud to have coined.

Marco’s slides were full of information – far too much for the time given – so a lot had to be skipped over, but my main takeaway was that combining multiple trophic levels can be extremely beneficial. Different organisms work in symbiosis, such as fish and algae, which would work much like an aquaponics system. As a result, waste products are upcycled and made more available as food. Another example is the lumpsucker, an adorable fish which kills sea lice, a pest to salmon production, all whilst producing a sort of caviar.

I wonder whether it is possible to build a system that uses the benefits of these symbiotic relationships, whilst having the benefits of being decoupled.


This is a series on Aquafarm 2018. The first article gives an overview of some of the other talks that interested me.

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