Aquaman: An Interview with Simon Goddek on “Aquaponics,” Food Technology Inspired by the Ecosystem
Confucius once mentioned that, if you teach a man to fish, he eats for a lifetime. And while his thought was wise, in terms of literality and practicality, it hasn’t aged well. Today, what a man needs to feed himself is an acceptable CV, a decent level of capability, and a job opening—after which he will be considering (among other choices) Hot Pockets, Kirkland-brand basil pesto, or Omega-3 supplements (in case he is staving off the seafood).
The average student in any semi-industrialized country does not think about this too often, and Simon Goddek (30) used to be one of them. After graduating high school in Cologne, Germany, Goddek didn’t exactly know what he wanted to do—but he knew he needed to eat. So after spending a year at the University of Köln studying English and Religious Science, and hating it, he went to study marketing in the Netherlands.
But he hated that too.
Then, taking one more leap of faith, he switched to “Business with an Ecological touch (it was kind of Eco-business.)” And yes, he hated that as well—but aside from that, the course planted a seed in Goddek’s mind. Simon decided to finish the course, as it was a little late to be picky, and in the process, he developed an interest in “sustainable energy sources, water treatment, et cetera.” He did a Master’s in Energy Management and Water Technology (University of Twente, The Netherlands) on the advice of his supervisor, and he loved it. This led him down the path of “aquaponics,” on the advice of a friend, and he loved that too. He did his PhD at the University of Iceland and Wageningen University and has been working in the field ever since.
“Aquaponics,” the topic of our interview, describes a system which combines aquaculture and hydroponics; in other words, it raises aquatic animals and plants in a controlled, symbiotic, watery environment. What fascinates Goddek is just how purposeful every part of the system is: the fish provide the plants with the nutrients, bacteria, and “fertilizer” to survive, while the plants help clean the water from “fertilizer.” It’s a system with incredible potential. The waste is minimal. The water is almost entirely reused. And what’s harvested are two of the most nutritional foods we eat: fish and vegetables.
The technology is going to work in places where it is needed most. Besides a 1.5 hectare high-tech farm in the Namib Desert, there is a smaller, developing farm providing high-quality lettuce and fish to local Carrefour grocers in Kenya—which, thanks to a massive drought, is in desperate need of food. Goddek also helps with the “Red Sea Farms” in Saudi Arabia, which, like the Namib Desert farm, makes use of arid land space to facilitate production. This is another major benefit to aquaponics. Its versatility means that production can take place practically anywhere. Goddek and his colleagues have created a mathematical model which can take in hundreds of parameters, mostly weather-based, to predict the optimal greenhouse setup as well as amount of fish and greens a system would produce, along with describing what the fish density and water conditions must be for this to happen.
Aquaponics is progressing fast, and if it gets over its production yield challenges, then in the coming years it could have a major impact on our climate. Its technology is versatile—it’s the whole package. Since there’s no need for arable land, consistent precipitation, or the likes, it can find itself in many places where food production is challenging, eliminating the need for masses of sustenance to be imported. Food transportation is a huge source of CO2 emissions—the food industry itself accounts for about 17 percent of carbon emissions worldwide, and a good portion of that is from the logistics (especially of vegetables). Aquaponics could source food much closer to home.
Food production is a major influence on global politics. In fact, it is the reason the Amazon is being set on fire—the land is being cleared to raise more cattle, for beef exports. On the topic, Goddek said, “Brazil’s President is really cutting down the rainforest. He doesn’t care about the rainforest—and I care. He needs to be stopped, and he can either be stopped by politicians, or by technology to make his approach of cutting down the rainforest obsolete.” Aquaponics has an approach completely opposite to President Bolsonaro’s. It doesn’t require land clearing; instead, it uses land that’s otherwise unusable (e.g. arid lands). Goddek stated, “shifting food production into arid regions… if we could make this possible I think we solve part of the problem, especially regarding climate change.”
Goddek and his team are working hard to increase their systems’ productivity. He himself introduced the idea of decoupling multi-loop systems. In these developments, remineralization and distillation technologies allow for the plants to grow in solutions concentrated with nutrients, and for fish to swim in clean water. This technology has lead to much higher yield, with leafy greens growing much faster than in state-of-the-art hydroponics systems.
While there are still a couple steps to go, Goddek recently overcame a huge goal: releasing a comprehensive guide to aquaponics. He had wanted to write for a while, and finally found a publisher willing to sponsor him some time ago. Goddek enlisted the help of 60 other researchers, with himself being the main editor. As Simon found, this was a real work of passion. He put in 10 to 20 hours every week, editing and writing, for two years. It was exhausting. But, this was his calling. This was what he’d been waiting for all those years ago, while going through courses in Business, English, Energy Management, Religious Science, and so on. His resilience paid off, and he published Aquaponics Food Production Systems June this year.
Hand-in-hand with his motivation to write, Goddek encourages everyone to educate themselves on aquaponics—especially considering that the book is open access (i.e. free), available online (https://link.springer.com/book/10.1007%2F978-3-030-15943-6). When asked for words of encouragement, he responded, “It’s written in a way that people can understand it, and if people don’t want to go in-depth, they can read the 5-chapter introduction. Everyone should understand this. If not… read the bloody abstract.”
Goddek’s work means that he’s constantly airborne. He spends so much time on long-hauls from Kenya, to the Netherlands, to America, that he may as well go to flight school just to cut costs. But though in-flight entertainment systems are seen all around him, from the little screens straight ahead, to the iPads and laptops and headsets and Nintendo Switches that passengers have brought themselves, Goddek has his own paper-based pastime. Just before each flight, Goddek goes to the bookstore, browses the shelves, and pulls the gun on a book that catches his eye. Then, on the flight, he powers through the whole thing. Goddek reads a book on every single flight—and every flight, he goes through that single book. Read more about Simon Goddek on his website: www.goddek.com
Dr. Simon Goddek
Written by Devaansh Mahtani & Edited by Alexander Fleiss