Integration is the secret to sustainable food production.
Integration (in a food production context) provides for an holistic farming system that converts the waste products of one production process into the feedstock for others.
Integration occurs when we combine two or more food production systems to leverage their efficiency. As such, integrated systems are always more than the sum of their parts. They’re the agricultural equivalent of 2+2=5 (or more).
Some of the features of an effective integrated food production system include:
- a diverse mix of organisms
- balanced nutrient cycles
- greater sustainability
- enhanced productivity/profitability
If you set out to emulate commercial industrial farming (which is generally neither integrated nor sustainable), your home-grown food will always be more expensive than the stuff you buy at the local supermarket; largely due to the ability of large commercial farmers to take advantage of the economies of scale.
If, however, you can source your plant nutrients, livestock fodder, and water at little or no cost, and you provide the labour yourself, you can shift the balance in your favour…and therein lies the key to producing food cheaper than the big players in agriculture.
A truly efficient integration almost conceals the motive for its creation. For example, the construction of a duckweed pond serves as a nutrient source for a satellite hydroponics unit. A water storage might also usefully accommodate fish, latent heat and even a water garden if the tank is open at the top.
Living organisms lend themselves to integration, too. A chicken may provide eggs for you – and body heat and expired CO2 for your plants. At the same time that this is going on, they also help to control insects and weeds.
Eventually, the chicken becomes meat. The feathers, blood and bones are good for the compost bin, and freshwater fish will happily consume the viscera (guts).
The point is that, regardless of the initial motivation for the system, the integration of other food production assets simply leverages the value we receive from those same assets.
Integration, in a micro-farming context, is essentially about value creation. An integrated food production system should provide for better quality, greater quantity, shorter timeframe, lower cost….more for less!
Aquaponics is a useful example of integration on a small scale. The fish produce waste that is converted to plant nutrients that then produce vegetables and herbs.
As useful as aquaponics is, however, it still requires external inputs like energy, fish food and (depending on the plants) specific nutrients. It is still only a single step in a longer journey to create an agri-ecosystem comprising a diverse network of integrations.
If we extend aquaponics to Microponics, we eat the vegetables, herbs and fish and the wastes from our kitchen go to chickens, worms or soldier fly larvae, which are then mixed with duckweed to become fish food.
And the scope of integration doesn’t stop there. We can add other small livestock (like rabbits, chickens, quail, ducks, snails and bees) and water gardening (for water chestnuts and kankong, etc).
With Microponics there is no waste in a landfill sense. The so-called waste product of one organism becomes the feedstock for another.
Each of the organisms or species in Microponics has a food chain connection with the others. The worms eat the deep litter out of the quail pens and produce an excellent soil conditioner and plant food in the process. The quail and fish eat the worms and some of the plants.
In this model of integration, we get fish, quail/chicken/duck meat and eggs, worm castings/tea, duckweed, animal protein, vegetables, herbs, rabbits, skins and honey.
The challenge when designing Microponics systems is to see every output as a resource…even waste body heat and expired carbon dioxide.
This article was first published in May 2009. It was reviewed and updated in June 2017.