One of the biggest challenges facing human beings today may be securing sustainable, healthy food. Many current food production methods appear increasingly inadequate and even on the verge of collapse. Modern industrialized food systems seem to struggle to provide healthy and environmentally sustainable nourishment at a reasonable price.
Providing protein sources may prove particularly challenging. Livestock account for a large portion of greenhouse gas emissions. Significantly, they also necessitate vast tracts of land. Seventy per cent of the deforested Amazon rainforest is supposedly utilized for livestock production. Statistics like this are similar across the planet. Thirty per cent of the Earth’s surface is apparently in use for livestock production. Livestock, especially cattle, also account for the erosion of land and pollution of freshwater sources.
Unfortunately, aquatic life is also looking insufficient as a food supply for the world’s growing population. As wild fisheries collapse worldwide, the seafood industry increasingly relies on aquaculture systems. These too are not ideal food sources. Waste from fish farms has the potential to pollute large areas of natural habitat. Furthermore, these systems are potential breeding grounds for disease and parasites. A prime example of this is sea lice, which allegedly has ravaged wild salmon populations after spreading from aquacultures.
In the face of all these obstacles, farmers around the world are finding ingenious ways to produce food that leaves the smallest possible footprint on the planet. Urban farming is one of these ways. The idea of growing food where one lives is hardly new; it is only in the years since the Industrial Revolution that it has become the exception rather than the norm. There are many reasons to grow food closer to home; it cuts down on transport, provides fresher produce, and encourages a connection between food and consumer.
These principles are part of what drive Victoria’s Mason Street Farm. Located a short distance from the heart of downtown, Mason Street Farm has been quietly producing organic produce and eggs since 1989. Nestled between character homes and facing a park, the quarter-acre farm has gradually grown to its current size. This time of year, the farm features lush, black soil waiting for greens. The chicken coop stands empty for now, and the beehives are dormant. Everything is as you would expect a Canadian farm to look in winter, waiting for the arrival of the summer season. That is until you open the doors of the large, plastic-covered shelter hidden in the back.
Inside the door is another world. The air is humid and warm. Bright green plants cover platforms around the room, while fish swim in small tanks underneath. The two are intrinsically linked in a form of food production called aquaponics. Aquaponics enables production of fish and plants in one system, drastically reducing the space needed for either one. It is also cyclical; there is no end point of production. The fish produce waste, which is then pumped to the plants. Through their own natural processes, and with the help of nitrifying bacteria, the plants use the waste in the same way that they would use fertilizer. The now-purified water drips through the platform the plants grow on and waits to be cycled back into use for the fish.
Angela Moran and Jess Brown, the co-owners of Mason Street Farm, are currently in the trial stage of their aquaponics system. Instead of tilapia or other fish swimming in their tanks, the aquariums currently hold Koi. Once the proper pH levels and temperature balances have been achieved, they plan to transition and begin producing fish for market. As a relatively new method of food production, aquaponics is being tested and perfected around the world. The simplicity of the principle allows it to be used anywhere in the world. This includes places with poor soil, even right on top of concrete. This provides not only minimal waste, but also healthy, fresh choices.
The ultimate goal of Mason Street Farm is to provide fresh produce to people that would otherwise not have access. Moran and Brown also strive to provide education on urban farming and teach others with their aquaponics system, welcoming volunteers and hosting summer and spring apprentices, as well as various workshops.