Future food

| 02 May 2012 | 04:48

In domesticating one of the last wild foods, we have the chance to do it smarter and cleaner than we’ve ever farmed before. Let’s take a look at two visions – one saltwater, one fresh – of the perfect system.

It was at the World Aquaculture Conference in Veracruz, Mexico, that Mike Finnegan ate the tomato that changed his life. He was there doing research for his friend Thomas Endres, an engineer who’d been offered a job designing a fish farm in Long Island. A Mexican farmer had Finnegan taste three tomatoes. The one grown hydroponically, in a solution of water and liquid fertilizer, tasted like cardboard. The field-grown tomato tasted like only a field-grown tomato can. The one grown aquaponically, in water with fish waste in it, was almost as good as the field-grown. Three years later, Finnegan has banked his Wall Street fortune that aquaponics – the combination of aquaculture (fish farming) and hydroponics (growing food without soil) – will be on the forefront of the future of food.

So far, “it’s going wild, just wild,” Finnegan said of the brand new $5.2 million aquaponics operation, Continental Organics, that he and Endres co-founded. “People are coming out of the woodwork looking for our products.”

Inside what used to be a catering hall in New Windsor, NY, in a fish nursery sealed off from visitors, 30,000 fingerling tilapia are growing in quarantined tanks. When these spiky-finned evolutionary warriors – which got a shout-out in the bible – get to be index-finger size, they’ll graduate into blue tanks in the fish house, a long warehouse-like which is still under construction. This year, 110,000 pounds of fish will come out of this fish house. In five years, a million pounds of fish will swim through the system, operated by 120 employees, if all goes according to plan.

That’s a million pounds of fish that’s not coming out of the overfished oceans.

As the fish eat and excrete their vegetable-based feed, a pump circulates the nutrient-rich fish waste water through pipes that run under the parking lot to twin greenhouses. Inside the greenhouses, endless rows of greens flourishing in white plastic trays. The plants’ matted roots collect the nutrients from the reservoir of fish waste that runs through the trays. The plant roots cleanse the water, which is then circulated back to the fish in a closed-loop system. The self-contained system addresses all the major potential pitfalls of fish farming, including the spreading of disease to wild fish, and discharging polluted water. Tilapia are herbivores, which means that unlike fish higher on the food chain, raising them doesn’t deplete wild fish populations. Growing food hydroponically also uses 90 percent less water than conventional agriculture, according to Finnegan.

Despite the intimate connection between fish and greens, these tilapia (other than the one fish co-opted into posing as the cover model) will never enter the greenhouse. That’s because plants and fish prefer different environmental conditions. Plants need dry air to transpire efficiently. Tilapia are tropical fish so they like it hot.

The bib lettuce, arugula and basil – with tomatoes to follow shortly – are being snapped up by the Culinary Institute of America, West Point, and are on shelves of grocery store chains Adams Fair Acre Farms and Red Barn Produce. The operation is strategically located in Orange County, near Hunts Points and West Point, future tilapia buyers.

Almost everything in the system is recirculated or re-used. Continental Organics will turn dead fish and excess fish waste into fertilizer, which it will bag and sell. The only piece of the puzzle that doesn’t have a second life is the fiberglass “rock wool” in which seedlings are started. The search is on for a compostable alternative; trial #1 revealed that corn husks get moldy after a month in water.

Finnegan, 56, who spent years at JP Morgan and in the US Army, is working 17 hour days and has, he claims, never had more fun.

Still, for first-time visitors to a fish farm, the idea of raising fish in what is essentially a factory inevitably has a dystopian quality about it. The two farms in this story are paradigms of modern technology and environmental stewardship. Kate McLaughlin, seafood program director of the Blue Ocean Institute, called them “heartening” examples of “U.S. companies working to grow aquaculture domestic production in ways that minimize negative environmental impacts.” And yet, those tanks, in which fish will spend their lives swimming against manufactured currents, are a poignant reminder that at population 7 billion, in an age of $22 all-you-can-eat-sushi, we have vacuumed the sea floor to the point where its kings, the tuna and marlin, are nearing extinction. Endangered, too, are fishermen in the image of that iconic old man of Hemingway’s, with deep wrinkles in the back of his neck and deep-creased scars on his hands from handling fish on heavy cords.

Does it make them somehow less strange, that farmed fish can inflict scars, too? The man who designed the Continental Organics system has been sent to the hospital three times by tilapia spines. Kevin Ferry, 40, grew up at the end of a cul-de-sac collecting frogs and digging ecosystems for them in his backyard. After graduating from SUNY Cobleskill with a degree in hatcheries and aquaculture, Ferry studied at Amherst’s bioshelter, a million-gallon aquaponic facility that Ferry says made every mistake, but did so ahead of its time. He hatched Coho salmon in Alaska for four years. But Ferry’s not just a fish guy.

“Mostly,” he shrugged, “I’m a farmer.” He aims to get out of work in time to get home with enough light to see his exotic Asian chickens before they go to roost.

When he started doing it 20-odd years ago, finding a job in aquaponics probably meant working for a quirky chemistry teacher. Now that fully half of the world’s food fish comes from a farm, “there’s this scramble,” Ferry said. “People are getting interested in aquaponics, and who’s going to be producing food. They’re not just talking about it anymore.”

Although aquaponics is growing, Ferry says it’s still hard to find people who feel equally comfortable in the greenhouse and the fish house. That may be a symptom of a national issue; America, which eats more seafood than any country but China and Japan, lags much of the developed world when it comes to growing its own.

U.S. aquaculture plays catch-up

The American appetite for the other white meat has grown leaps and bounds in past decades, and 2011 governmental dietary guidelines upped the recommended intake of seafood to eight ounces or more a week to avoid keeling over from a heart attack – twice what the average American eats. Globally, aquaculture, which some call the single most viable solution to meet the world’s growing protein demand, has been growing faster than any other form of food production. But the U.S. hasn’t kept pace, and so we find ourselves one of the world’s biggest importers of seafood, sending billions overseas, mostly to China.

Fish are a valuable trading chip. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, part of the U.S. Department of Commerce, in 2007 set a goal to increase U.S. aquaculture more than five-fold by 2025.

Aside from being good for the gross domestic product, growing fish locally instead of importing it would mean fewer food miles, fresher fish, stricter oversights (China, the giant in the fish farming industry, has been fingered for such misdeeds as feeding fish human waste, mislabeling fish and adding banned chemicals), and of course a lot of money in the pocket of the fish farmer. The right model has to grow tasty, reasonably priced fresh fish. But that’s not enough anymore.

The public is waking up to the fact that fish are not necessarily a renewable resource – and seems to care. “Consumers of fish, particularly in the world’s richer economies, are increasingly demanding that retailers guarantee that the fish they offer is not only of high quality and safe to eat but also that it derives from fisheries that are sustainable,” according to the U.N. report on fisheries. In April, Whole Foods stopped selling fish caught from depleted waters or through ecologically damaging methods.

Finnegan is not the only entrepreneur rushing to oblige the omega-3-hungry, conscientious and well-heeled masses.

The upstate Mediterranean You think, pulling up, you’ve got the wrong address. The decrepit-looking warehouse that used to be packed floor to ceiling with air humidifiers doesn’t look like the world’s first zero discharge inland ocean ecosystem.

Around back, an African Ridgeback – the kind of dog bred to chase lions up trees – gives a welcome lick, and the man smoking a cigarette on the stairs nods yes, this is Local Ocean. (The Ridgeback, Mia, came to Hudson, NY from Israel with operations manager Sharon Geula.)

Inside, the temperature is Mediterranean. So are the fish. One and a half million saltwater fish – sea bream, European sea bass, striped bass, black sea bass, yellowtail amberjack – have traveled here from Israel, Chile, California, and the hatchery that Local Ocean bought in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. Each batch goes directly into a quarantined nursery whose tanks hold 4,000 fish apiece, local tap water and salt pellets from the Red Sea in Israel. Here the fingerlings are divided by size and handled to bring out any diseases that might have been lying dormant, even though they all come with a clean bill of health. In a closed system, one sick fish could mean a million and a half sick fish.

Four to six weeks later, the fries graduate to pools called “grow-out units” that line the old warehouse and a massive greenhouse.

“It’s insane how fast they built this,” said Kate Frederick, 29, a marine biologist who grew up and lives in nearby Canaan, and the manager of the nursery houses. Planning began in 2009. In July 2009, the first shipment of 45,000 sea bream flew in from an Israeli kibbutz. Two months later, Local Ocean was selling fish. Now they’re processing 1.5 million pounds of fish a year. When it hits capacity, this facility will produce 2 million pounds of fish yearly. “It’s mostly Israelis, and they have a very different cultural mindset. They’re much more driven than any other people I’ve ever met.”

While there are no plants in this system, aerobic and then anaerobic bacteria in a series of filters play the same role. The bacteria feed on the waste, cleansing the water, which is eventually released back into the system. The only waste product is nitrogen gas bubbles. A year after their arrival, the fish meet their end in an ice bath and end up at restaurants and grocery stores like Price Chopper and Fresh Direct, where a sushi-grade Yellowtail amberjack can be ordered with a few clicks (you specify the cut and whether you want the head), and arrive at a Manhattan apartment the next day.

As opposed to tilapia, the species at Local Ocean are all carnivorous, so their food pellets include fishmeal. The small fries are fed pellets that contain other fish as well as poultry by-products, according to the website of feed manufacturer Zeigler. Feeding captive fish wild fish represents one of aquaculture’s biggest obstacles. In response to a question about the feed, Frederick printed me an article from a fisheries journal, explaining that a wild fish eats a lot more wild fish than the equivalent farmed fish, which makes farmed fish more efficient, ecologically speaking.

On a promotional video on the company’s website, Local Ocean’s CEO, Efraim Bason, says the company aims to have a facility near every major U.S. city within five years. After the tour, no one from Local Ocean could be reached to answer follow-up questions, but a story in the Hill Country Observer explained that Bason, an Israeli businessman, hooked up with Grupos Alimos, a Mexican fish distributor that imports for Wal-Mart, which provided most of the $11 million start-up costs.

Geula, 37, says he was surprised that the sea bream and bronzini here are bigger and better than those produced in the open ocean fish farm in Israel where he used to work. The fish farmed in open cages in Israel “had copper, mercury, pollution from boats. Fish is like a sponge.”

Still, Geula won’t eat the fish from Local Oceans. “Ninety percent of people here don’t eat fish. They are family. I can’t eat family.” Geula wears a necklace with a fish tail pendant and seashells on it. On closer look, Frederick has one on, too. Geula’s says, in Hebrew, “Just the sound of waves and wind in the sails.”

Geula considers the work he and his compatriots are doing in upstate New York as a way to “say thank you back” for the help that the U.S. has provided Israel. “We are doing Zionism here. Our way is to say thank you,” he said, “to create employment and a better society.”

By Becca Tucker