Small-scale aquaponic food production

a comprehensive technical paper on aquaponics from UN FAO

Small-scale aquaponic food production

From the collaboration of over a dozen of individuals, authored by five international aquaponics and agriculture experts, FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations) issued a great, 288-pages comprehensive document on aquaponics.

It thoroughly describes the concept of integrated fish and plant farming using aquaponics in a non-technical style, making it possible for any interested audiences to get a good understanding of this food production technology.

The document not only introduces to the key principals, it also details a number of practical issues important for starting and operating an aquaponic system successfully; from site location through plumbing and water quality to the biological issues, fishes, plants and bacterias.
It has a 40 pages appendix providing a step-by-step guide to constructing a small-scale (backyard) aquaponic systems and a great troubleshooting and maintenance guide making this document a must-have for all active and future backyard aquaponic farmers.

And it is free to download from FAO


To illustrate the completeness of the guide, here is its Table of Contents:

1. Introduction to aquaponics
1.1 Hydroponics and soil-less culture
1.2 Aquaculture
1.3 Aquaponics
1.4 Applicability of aquaponics
1.5 A brief history of modern aquaponic technology
1.6 Current applications of aquaponics
1.6.1 Domestic/small-scale aquaponics
1.6.2 Semi-commercial and commercial
1.6.3 Education
1.6.4 Humanitarian relief and food security interventions
2. Understanding aquaponics
2.1 Important biological components of aquaponics
2.1.1 The nitrogen cycle
2.2 The biofilter
2.3 Maintaining a healthy bacterial colony
2.3.1 Surface area
2.3.2 Water pH
2.3.3 Water temperature
2.3.4 Dissolved oxygen
2.3.5 Ultraviolet light
2.4 Balancing the aquaponic ecosystem
2.4.1 Nitrate balance
2.4.2 Feed rate ratio
2.4.3 Health check of fish and plants
2.4.4 Nitrogen testing
2.5 Chapter summary
3. Water quality in aquaponics
3.1 Working within the tolerance range for each organism
3.2 The five most important water quality parameters
3.2.1 Oxygen
3.2.2 pH
3.2.3 Temperature
3.2.4 Total nitrogen: ammonia, nitrite, nitrate
3.2.5 Water hardness
3.3 Other major components of water quality: algae and parasites
3.3.1 Photosynthetic activity of algae
3.3.2 Parasites, bacteria and other small organisms living in the water
3.4 Sources of aquaponic water
3.4.1 Rainwater
3.4.2 Cistern or aquifer water
3.4.3 Tap or municipal water
3.4.4 Filtered water
3.5 Manipulating pH
3.5.1 Lowering pH with acid
3.5.2 Increasing pH with buffers or bases
3.6 Water testing
3.7 Chapter summary
4. Design of aquaponic units
4.1 Site selection
4.1.1 Stability
4.1.2 Exposure to wind, rain and snow
4.1.3 Exposure to sunlight and shade
4.1.4 Utilities, fences and ease of access
4.1.5 Special considerations: rooftop aquaponics
4.1.6 Greenhouses and shading net structures
4.2 Essential components of an aquaponic unit
4.2.1 Fish tank
4.2.2 Filtration – mechanical and biological
4.2.3 Hydroponic components – media beds, NFT, DWC
4.2.4 Water movement
4.2.5 Aeration
4.2.6 Sump tank
4.2.7 Plumbing materials
4.2.8 Water testing kits
4.3 The media bed technique
4.3.1 Water flow dynamics
4.3.2 Media bed construction
4.3.3 Choice of medium
4.3.4 Filtration
4.3.5 The three zones of media beds – characteristics and processes
4.3.6 Irrigating media beds
4.4 Nutrient film technique (NFT)
4.4.1 Water flow dynamics
4.4.2 Mechanical and biological filtration
4.4.3 Nutrient film technique grow pipes, construction and planting
4.5 Deep water culture technique
4.5.1 Water flow dynamics
4.5.2 Mechanical and biological filtration
4.5.3 DWC grow canals, construction and planting
4.5.4 Special case DWC: low fish density, no filters
4.6 Comparing aquaponic techniques
4.7 Chapter summary
5. Bacteria in aquaponics
5.1 Nitrifying bacteria and the biofilter
5.1.1 High surface area
5.1.2 Water pH
5.1.3 Water temperature
5.1.4 Dissolved oxygen
5.1.5 UV light
5.1.6 Monitoring bacterial activity
5.2 Heterotrophic bacteria and mineralization
5.3 Unwanted bacteria
5.3.1 Sulphate reducing bacteria
5.3.2 Denitrifying bacteria
5.3.3 Pathogenic bacteria
5.4 System cycling and starting a biofilter colony
5.4.1 Adding fish and plants during the cycling process
5.5 Chapter summary
6. Plants in aquaponics
6.1 Major differences between soil and soil-less crop production
6.1.1 Fertilizer
6.1.2 Water use
6.1.3 Utilization of non-arable land
6.1.4 Productivity and yield
6.1.5 Reduced workload
6.1.6 Sustainable monoculture
6.1.7 Increased complication and high initial investment
6.2 Basic plant biology
6.2.1 Basic plant anatomy and function
6.2.2 Photosynthesis
6.2.3 Nutrient requirements
6.2.4 Aquaponic sources of nutrients
6.3 Water quality for plants
6.3.1 pH
6.3.2 Dissolved oxygen
6.3.3 Temperature and season
6.3.4 Ammonia, nitrite and nitrate
6.4 Plant selection
6.5 Plant health, pest and disease control
6.5.1 Plant pests, integrated production and pest management
6.5.2 Plant diseases and integrated disease management
6.6 Plant design
6.7 Chapter summary
7. Fish in aquaponics
7.1 Fish anatomy, physiology and reproduction
7.1.1 Fish anatomy
7.1.2 Fish reproduction and life cycle
7.2 Fish feed and nutrition
7.2.1 Components and nutrition of fish feed
7.2.2 Pelletized fish feed
7.2.3 Feed conversion ratio for fish and feeding rate
7.3 Water quality for fish
7.3.1 Nitrogen
7.3.2 pH
7.3.3 Dissolved oxygen
7.3.4 Temperature
7.3.5 Light and darkness
7.4 Fish selection
7.4.1 Tilapia
7.4.2 Carp
7.4.3 Catfish
7.4.4 Trout
7.4.5 Largemouth bass
7.4.6 Prawns
7.5 Acclimatizing fish
7.6 Fish health and disease
7.6.1 Fish health and well-being
7.6.2 Stress
7.6.3 Fish disease
7.7 Product quality
7.8 Chapter summary
8. Management and troubleshooting
8.1 Component calculations and ratios
8.1.1 Plant growing area, amount of fish feed and amount of fish
8.1.2 Water volume
8.1.3 Filtration requirements – biofilter and mechanical separator
8.1.4 Summary of component calculations
8.2 New aquaponic systems and initial management
8.2.1 Building and preparing the unit
8.2.2 System cycling and establishing the biofilter
8.3 Management practices for plants
8.3.1 Review of planting guidelines
8.3.2 Establishing a plant nursery
8.3.3 Transplanting seedlings
8.3.4 Harvesting plants
8.3.5 Managing plants in mature systems
8.3.6 Plants – summary
8.4 Management practices for fish
8.4.1 Fish feeding and growth rates
8.4.2 Harvesting and staggered stocking
8.4.3 Fish – summary
8.5 Routine management practices
8.5.1 Daily activities
8.5.2 Weekly activities
8.5.3 Monthly activities
8.6 Safety at work
8.6.1 Electrical safety
8.6.2 Food safety
8.6.3 General safety
8.6.4 Safety – summary
8.7 Troubleshooting
8.8 Chapter summary
9. Additional topics on aquaponics
9.1 Sustainable, local alternatives for aquaponic inputs
9.1.1 Organic plant fertilizers
9.1.2 Alternative fish feed
9.1.3 Seed collection
9.1.4 Rainwater harvesting
9.1.5 Alternative building techniques for aquaponic units
9.1.6 Alternative energy for aquaponic units
9.2 Securing water levels for a small-scale unit
9.2.1 Float switches
9.2.2 Overflow pipes
9.2.3 Standpipes
9.2.4 Animal fences
9.3 Integrating aquaponics with other gardens
9.3.1 Irrigation and fertilization
9.3.2 Irrigating wicking beds
9.4 Examples of small-scale aquaponic setups
9.4.1 Aquaponics for livelihood in Myanmar
9.4.2 Saline aquaponics
9.4.3 Bumina and Yumina
9.5 Chapter summary
Appendix 1 – Vegetable production guidelines for 12 common aquaponic plants
Appendix 2 – Plant pests and disease control
Appendix 3 – Fish pests and disease control
Appendix 4 – Calculating the amount of ammonia and biofilter media for an aquaponic unit
Appendix 5 – Making homemade fish feed
Appendix 6 – Key considerations before setting up an aquaponic system
Appendix 7 – Cost-benefit analysis for small-scale aquaponic units
Appendix 8 – Step-by-step guide to constructing small-scale aquaponic systems
Aquaponics quick-reference handout