Imagine a farm where fish and vegetables grow together, helping each other and the people they feed to prosper. This isn’t a new idea. Integrated Aquaculture-Agriculture (IAA) systems are an age-old tradition that a pivotal study published in Nature Food found can significantly enhance both micronutrient and economic productivity, paving the way for a more nutrition-sensitive food system.
The study, Integrated aquatic and terrestrial food production enhances micronutrient and economic productivity for nutrition sensitive food systems, co-authored by WorldFish Postdoctoral Fellow Liz Ignowski and supported by USAID’s Feed the Future Fish Innovation Lab and CGIAR Asian Mega Deltas Initiative, compared 12 distinct IAA combinations on 721 farms in Bangladesh over a year and found that integrating terrestrial crops into aquaculture systems not only boosts the output of vital nutrients but also strengthens farmers’ economic position.
“Our research in on IAA has discovered a symbiotic relationship that significantly boosts both nutrient production and economic stability. This is not just about improving farming practices, it is about rethinking how we approach food systems to build a healthier, more sustainable future,” says Liz Ignowski.
Ancient integrated aquaculture-agriculture practices for modern nutrition
The study, which has already garnered attention with articles appearing in INFOFISH and World Aquaculture Magazine, identified crustaceans and carp as the top foods for maximising economic value. For delivering a range of essential micronutrients, the best foods are wild fish from ponds, green leafy vegetables and nuts and oilseeds.
In the study, the farms were grouped based on what they farm – four types of water-based foods and four types of land-based foods. Farms with very few (12 or less) observations were not included, so 700 farms were analysed with 39 per cent of farms only growing fish, 29 per cent growing fish with prawn and shrimp, 26 per cent growing fish with prawn, and 8 per cent growing fish with shrimp. Among these farms, 96 per cent grow some type of carp, 83 per cent grow wild fish, 82 per cent grow other types of fish and 59 per cent grow crustaceans.
The study identified specific combinations of aquatic foods and vegetables that could concurrently ramp up both nutrient and economic productivity, finding that IAA systems that combine fish and prawns with vegetables and fruits and rice have the highest productivity of energy, protein, iron, zinc and vitamin A. The research also found that IAA systems can cater to the nutritional needs of more adults per hectare than conventional farming methods.
Additionally, the economic benefits can be profound. By cultivating fish and vegetables together, farmers can diversify their income streams. If one crop fails or prices drop, they have a buffer, ensuring greater financial stability. This is critical in a country like Bangladesh where small-scale farming is not just a livelihood but a way of life.
Moreover, integrated aquaculture-agriculture systems are environmentally sustainable. Traditional farming can deplete soil nutrients and require significant chemical inputs, but integrated aquaculture-agriculture systems encourage a natural ecological balance. The fish contribute to the fertility of the soil, reducing the need for artificial fertilisers, while the plants help to filter and purify the water for the fish. This minimises the farms’ environmental footprint and can contribute to the conservation of local biodiversity.
By focusing on the nutritional value produced per area to measure farming productivity instead of just income or biomass, the study provides key insights for designing programmes that improve nutrition through aquaculture and guide improvements in farming, like encouraging the inclusion of nutritious wild fish in ponds or selecting the best fish species for domestication. With future research building on this to recommend crop combinations that optimise both nutritional and economic returns under differing conditions.
With the world’s population projected to reach 9.7 billion by 2050, sustainable food systems like integrated aquaculture-agriculture could be key to meeting the increased demand for nutritious food without compromising the health of our planet. And with climate change posing a critical challenge to food production, the resilience of integrated aquaculture-agriculture systems to weather extremes, along with their minimal reliance on non-renewable resources, make them a promising avenue for adaptation.
With the resilience and benefits of integrated aquaculture-agriculture systems now evident, the researchers are now focused on scaling up their key findings, working towards broader implementation to maximise the impact on communities and global food security.
This piece was initially published on WorldFish and has been revised to suit Farming First’s editorial guidelines.