Like a shimmering purple spaceship, the glowing greenhouse stands in the middle of an old dairy factory in an Eindhoven industrial park in the Netherlands. It can't fly — but, if the founders of the startup Phood Farm have their way, their business will soon take off. They hope the future of agriculture will be birthed here.
The method used by the five young founders to grow up to 200 kilograms (440 pounds) of lettuce per week on an area smaller than a tennis court is called aquaponics — a combination of aquaculture, or fish farming, and hydroponics, which is growing vegetables in water without soil.
Phood Farm believes that aquaponics can be an important part of the solution to today's food production problems. For one, its food production system uses 90% less water than conventional farming. In a greenhouse, water is only lost when it evaporates or is absorbed by the plants, explains Tim Elfring, a Phood Farm co-founder.
In front of the plant basins are two large pools in which 180 koi carp swim. Their excrement is pumped into a pool where natural bacteria from the air, soil, and water convert potentially toxic ammonia from the fish manure into nitrate — which plants need to grow.
Tomatoes, eggplants, lettuce, various herbs and vegetables can be grown in this way. Theoretically, it would even be possible to plant grain and corn, but the infrastructure investment would be too high to make it economically viable. Perennial plants and fruits such as apples or oranges are not suitable. Growing species that can feed primarily on plants such as tilapia or carp is therefore crucial to the sustainability of aquaculture — and aquaponics.
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