Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Start Something to Live For

American author of Aquaponic Gardening Sylvia Bernstein on union of fish and veggies. Publisher of Mother Earth News Bryan Welch's optimism of non-partisan activism. Canada's oil capital shut down by climate change. Radio Ecoshock 130626 1 hour.

Get ready for your new food source: aquaponics. But first...


In Canada, an extreme rainfall event, made worse by a stalled weather system likely powered by an unstable Arctic and climate change, has closed down the country's oil trading capital.

In Calgary Canada, nature accomplished what politics could not. The largest oil company headquarters, including suncor Energy, Imperial Oil and Shell saw their head offices closed, as downtown Calgary was evacuated and left without power for days. Trading in Canadian crude oil stopped.

Alberta towns more than a hundred years old were evacuated, flooded, and wrecked. At least 75,000 people in the major oil-trading capital of Calgary were ordered out of their homes. Most of them do not have any flood insurance, as "over-land" insurance is no longer sold in Canada following the previous record flood of 2005. Billions of dollars of damage to homes, businesses, roads, bridges and all kinds of infrastructure occurred.

The TransCanada highway connecting to the West Coast was shut down for days.

The oil-promoter in Chief, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper flew to his hometown of Calgary, clearly shocked that climate change could affect Alberta itself.

"I’ve seen a little bit of flooding in Calgary before,” he said. “I don’t think any of us have seen anything like this.”

Perhaps if Harper had not shut down climate research facilities, including the Polar research station, and muzzled Canadian climate scientists, he might have heard about research from Rutgers University (Jennifer Francis) showing Jet Stream patterns were stalling due to melting Arctic sea ice. Extreme precipitation events are happening all over the world. Even in Alberta.

The Premier of the Canadian province of Alberta, Alison Redford flew back from New York, where she was promoting the Keystone XL pipeline to ship polluting Tar Sands oil to the United States. She too was shocked at the devastation. Who could have guessed an over-heated atmosphere could hold so much water?


Canadian television anchors and reporters were unable to utter the words "climate change" or "extreme precipitation event" - even as similar floods hit Europe and India. The CTV network reported the strange "blocking high" heating Eastern Canada with summer, while keeping a swirl of storms and extreme rain in the West. The stalled Jet Stream appeared on the map, without explanation.

I'm Alex Smith. This is Radio Ecoshock telling it like it is.

Later we'll hear one brief radio clip, the only major media report I could find, telling Canadians the real cause of the "weird weather" that strikes again and again, now as the new normal.

But first, let's get back to basic solutions for right living.

We'll start with my interview with one of the North American pioneers of a brand new method of clean food production, aquaponics. It has just arrived in North America. I predict within ten years you will be buying organic local produce and fresh fish from neighborhood fish and veggie operations. Or maybe you'll grow it all yourself in your own back yard. Sylvia Bernstein, author of Aquaponic Gardening tells us how.

Later we'll talk with the driving force behind the world's largest outlet for sustainable living: Bryan Welch. He's the CEO of Ogden Publications, publisher of The Mother Earth News, the Utne Reader, and Grit. Bryan explains his optimism in dark times, and why we need it to change the world into the lives we want.


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Sylvia Bernstein in her aquaponic greenhouse in Colorado.

A Google search for "aquaponics" brings about 3,380,000 results. And yet the field is less than five years old in America, maybe 15 years in North America.

Of course, as listener and song-writer Smokey Dymny points out "Chapter 13 of Bill Mollison's Permaculture, A Designer's Manual (1988) laid this methodology out in detail. Permaculture magazines and teaching institutes have followed up with up to date developments in the years since." The permaculture folks used ponds and planting together.

But aquaponics adds a new methodology, growing plants in media like gravel, rather than soil ("hydroponics") and delivering the fish effluent directly to the plant roots in a systematic way.

Here are a few informal notes on the History of Aquaculture from my talk with Sylvia Bernstein, author of Aquaponic Gardening - the premiere book on the subject in North America.


Fish have been feeding land plants since time immemorial, especially when we consider floods. Perhaps the Hanging Gardens of Babylon was an example of the earliest civilized aquaponics. Wiki suggests the Aztecs or people of South China and Thailand practiced a form of aquaponics.

"The development of modern aquaponics is often attributed to the various works of the New Alchemy Institute and the works of Dr. Mark McMurtry et al. at the North Carolina State University.[10] Inspired by the successes of the New Alchemy Institute, and the reciprocating aquaponics techniques developed by Dr. Mark McMurtry et al., other institutes soon followed suit. Starting in 1997, Dr. James Rakocy and his colleagues at the University of the Virgin Islands researched and developed the use of deep water culture hydroponic grow beds in a large-scale aquaponics system.[9]"

- Wikipedia


"The first aquaponics research in Canada was a small system added onto existing aquaculture research at a research station in Lethbridge, Alberta. Canada saw a rise in aquaponics setups throughout the ’90s, predominantly as commercial installations raising high-value crops such as trout and lettuce. A setup based on the deep water system developed at the University of Virgin Islands was built in a greenhouse at Brooks, Alberta where Dr. Nick Savidov and colleagues researched aquaponics from a background of plant science. The team made findings on rapid root growth in aquaponics systems and on closing the solid-waste loop, and found that owing to certain advantages in the system over traditional aquaculture, the system can run well at a low pH level, which is favoured by plants but not fish.

The Edmonton Aquaponics Society in Northern Alberta is adapting Dr. Savidov's commercially sized system to a smaller-scale prototype that can be operated by families, small groups, or restaurants. They intend to further develop the closed solid waste loop.[11]" - Wikipedia on Aquaponics


Here is a large helpful site based on the back yard experimental movement in Australia.

We didn't have time to go into the important role Australians played in developing aquaponics. The Aussies experimented and really made it happen. I doubt we'd have current results without the Australian role. But the real founder of aquaponics is...


The modern practice really began from research starting only 30 years ago, principally by Dr. James Rakocy at the University of the Virgin Islands. Rakocy was an aquaculture specialist who looked at ways to use plants to filter water for fish. "Waste in a contained aquaculture system is a big problem" says Bernstein. People had used water hyacinths to filter fish waste, but Rakocy thought why not grow food instead, like lettuce or tomatoes? That innovation started modern aquaponics.

His system was commercially oriented, called deep water raft-based production.

Rakocy is now retired, after a 30 year career. In the meantime, there was grass-roots experiments in Australia about home and back yard aquaponic gardening. That was more focused on using gravel. Modern aquaponics developed mainly in Australia around 2001 - and became popular in the United States only in the past 3 or 4 years.

Wiki lists ten key principles of aquaponics developed by Dr. Rakocy:

"Ten primary guiding principles for creating successful aquaponics systems were issued by Dr. James Rakocy, the director of the aquaponics research team at the University of the Virgin Islands, based on extensive research done as part of the Agricultural Experiment Station aquaculture program.

“Use a feeding rate ratio for design calculations

Keep feed input relatively constant

Supplement with calcium, potassium and iron

Ensure good aeration

Remove solids

Be careful with aggregates

Oversize pipes

Use biological pest control

Ensure adequate biofiltration

Control pH"

- Wikipedia


Sylvia Bernstein's 2009 book was first widely available book about aquaponics. It is called "Aquaponic Gardening, A Step-By-Step Guide To Raising Vegetables And Fish Together." Find it on Amazon here.

Sylvia Bernstein runs this helpful site with lots of aquaponics info.

Her main web site is: theaquaponicsource.com

Sylvia also plays a pivotal role in a new organization, the Aquaponics Association, founded just about 2 years ago.

They have held conventions for "aquapons" as they call themselves. The next is the 2013 Conference in September 20-22nd in Tucson Arizona, with Joel Salatin as lead speaker.

It is rare for aquaponic practitioners to meet in person. Most of the development and skill sharing for this new field was developed on the Internet. It's an amazing hybrid of high tech communication enabling a new type of safe food production at a time we need it badly.

Their first conference was in Orlando Florida 2 and a half years ago, leading to the founding of this association. They have almost 500 members now and still growing.

In our interview, we also discuss recycling an "IBC Tote" to make fish tanks on the cheap. IBC stands for Intermediate Bulk Container. One whole IBC tote can be made into a 275 gallon fish tank. Or cut it in half to make two grow beds out of it.

But Bernstein warns to check carefully what was stored in that tote before - it must be food stuffs, and not toxic chemicals! Also, the PH of the fish water/plant solution is very important, and so the tote cannot have carried high or low PH chemicals. You can also use blue plastic storage barrels.

Some fish will grow bigger and faster than others, so they don't all mature as a single crop like veggies (at least that's true with tilapia). We also discuss other fish that are more tolerant of cold water, like cat fish and trout, for folks living further north. In Colorado, Sylvia brings her fish tank indoors, from her outdoor greenhouse, during the winter months.

The fish do not smell, just as any other aquarium does not smell. You could do the whole operation indoors, say in a basement, with grow-lights for the plants.


The fish are intriguing (and tasty!) - but don't forget the fantastic results aquaponic growers get with fast-growing production in the plant side of things.

The plant roots are not always submerged in water, but are flooded with nutrients and then drained for air, automatically in repeating cycles - assuming you are using a media like gravel, and not a raft-based deep water culture.

Because the plants get lots of oxygen, water, and abundunt food - they don't have to focus energy on developing large root systems. Their roots may be quite small, and that energy goes into the leaves or fruits we want.

Sylvia adds composting red worms to her media.

There is a wave of interest in America in aquaponics for several reasons - chief among them being food security and food sovereignty. The government is not protecting our food supplies from GMO's, pesticides, hormones and toxic chemicals. Aquaponic production guarantees real organic food safety.

Sylvia is worried about climate change and it's impacts on mass food production. Aquaponics lets her produce her own supply of safe food. Plus...it's fun and good for the mind. Her greenhouse is so alive - with water flowing, fish, plants growing. Also, aquaponics is fantastic teaching tool for neighbors and children to learn biology and natural ecosystem interdependence.

When Sylvia studied agricultural economics at UC Davis, there was no sense of this delicate balance of natural systems. They learned to add chemicals, but never the consequences, like impacts on groundwater, rivers, and dead zones in the oceans.

Her site theaquaponicsource.com has plenty of free info and a community board. But they also have a store where they sell parts, or even a complete turn-key system if you are not the do-it-yourself kind of person, or do not have the time to set one up from scratch.


Find lots of photos of aquaponics experiments at the University of Arizona here.

Note lack of phosphorus in aquaponics system leads to use of greens like lettuce.

"Plant crops in aquaponics are usually limited to lettuce and other leafy crops, since they readily use the nitrogen available as a waste in aquaculture systems but don't need phosphorus (which is not present in aquaculture systems) as many fruiting plants do."

- U of Arizona

But Rakocy grew tomatoes as well... he added calcium, potassium and iron.

Here is a You tube video of Sylvia explaining aquaponics, created by thedailycamera.com

For three bucks you can get a .pdf download with tons of links for aquaponics, from the National sustainable Agriculture Information Service, here.

... and just search for "aquaponics" on You tube to watch hours of people just like yourself, setting up this new form of food production. It's very educational, and very possible.


Before we continue with our drive toward a sustainable world, let's take another quick moment to reflect on the dying path of fossil fuel destruction. Perhaps you've heard the Calgary, the oil-capital of Canada, was more or less shut down by flash flooding and over-flowing rivers.

As fate would have it, I was in Calgary on the night of Wednesday June 19th, as the black skies filled with thunder for almost a dozen hours. Sheets or rain, torrents of rain drenched the city. All the foothills let loose, creeks became rivers, rivers became fast-running lakes filling streets, homes, entire neighborhoods and towns. Fearing the water supply would become contaminated, there was panic buying of bottled water, until the shelves ran dry. As always, few were ready for an extreme rainfall event in the dry prairie.

Alberta is rich with wealth from the oil wells and the Tar Sands. But even that economy will reel from the billions of dollars of uninsured losses. The famous Calgary Stampede looked doubtful, as major stadiums, parks, and the downtown core flooded. Apartment towers stood empty in the dark.

The ruling party of Canada, the party of climate denial, was due to convene their annual conference in Calgary the next week. That was postponed.

Here is a brief clip from the government-supported Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, the program Current Events hosted by Anna Maria Tremonti. It's possibly the only report from a climate scientist in the days of non-stop coverage of the Alberta floods. The speaker is Robert Sandford, the EPCOR Chair supporting the United Nations "Water for Life" Decade.

[Excerpt from podcast interview with Bob Sanford and host Anna Maria Tremonti from the The Current, episode "Severe flooding in southern Alberta" from June 21, 2013. Find it here.]

That was Robert Sandford, explaining the science behind extreme rainfall events due to climate change. Even he did not have the courage to suggest we must reduce our emissions of fossil fuels as a solution, speaking instead of adapting to wilder climate swings.

NASA in America, hardly a radical source, confirms we can expect more extreme rainfall events due to climate change. And in this third warmest May recorded since temperature records were kept on planet Earth, flooding in Central Europe cost $22 billion dollars! The Alberta flooding will cost billions of dollars, being likely the most expensive "natural" disaster in Canada's history. Read this story of Calgary's "Manhattan moment" by Andrew Nikiforuk.

Enough. The same madness of denial goes on all over the world. In my opinion, all we can do as individuals who know that physics and nature will not be denied, is to keep pushing the movement toward a sane sustainable society. We are about to talk to an optimist driven by the vision it can be done.


Bryan Welch, publisher and editorial director of Ogden Publications.

This is my second interview with Bryan Welch, the powerhouse behind the Mother Earth News, Mother Earth Living, the Utne Reader and Grit. In addition to his active editorial role in the Mother Earth News, Bryan is CEO of the parent company Odgen Publications. He's right to say that company is the largest media force for sustainable living in the world.

Our first interview was about his book "Beautiful and Abundant, Building the World We Want". It's done very well - but to be honest, I had a hard time agreeing with his positive message, given the flood of bad news I cover on Radio Ecoshock. Plus, as a green, selling "abundance" to the American people seemed like a bad idea. We didn't end on a happy note.

This time, I was in a better space, and understood what Bryan is really trying to say.

As an example: who is reading Mother Earth News? Surely it's mostly liberals, Democrats, environmentalists? Not really Welch tells us in this interview. People who want better food and more self reliance may very well be Conservative, even Republicans. Welch feels he can get the message of sustainability out to a much wider audience if the politics are left out of the mix. That's my take anyway.

As to the idea of abundance, he's not talking about more useless shopping for stuff. It may well be abundance of community relations, of innovation. But we can't have that abundance, he tells us, unless we control population.

I raise the caveat that is we also demand beauty, there should be no dark, ugly holes hidden in the process of our society. For me, that means no destructive strip mining in the Tar Sands or Appalachia, or dangerous tanks of radioactive waste, behind our production and consumption. There should be beauty all the way.

Bryan explains why, despite the flow of negative reports in the media, we may be living in one of the better times for humanity.

This interview was less of a wrestling match, I felt, and better communication of Bryan's vision - which does lead to so much good information and alternative community action in his various publications. Bryan explains his philosophy here, and of course in his book.

Do I agree with everything Bryan Welch, or any of my guests say? Maybe you will disagree with some things. Radio Ecoshock is not a show where guests express my own personal state of mind. It is a platform, your platform, supported by you the listener, to hear the visionary voices, and the real do-ers, helping you make your own life choices.

This is a thought-provoking interview, well worth your time.

Visit Bryan Welch's blog on Mother Earth News here.


Thank you for listening, and being part of Radio Ecoshock. Find out how to support this program at our web site ecoshock.org. Your donations and memberships keep me going.

It also helps me pay for the tons of green audio files we offer on our web site, and from this blog. Downloads cost money, and we get thousands of shows downloaded every week.

I'm Alex Smith. If anything you hear on Radio Ecoshock makes you part of the solution, my job is done. Let's meet again next week.


We end the program with the hit song "Something To Live For" by Vancouver's own Barney Bentall and the Legendary Hearts.

Barney has a fascinating story. He came from an extremely wealthy family, and could have made his own fortune in the family business. Instead, he was lured into Rock and Roll. Not only did Bentall make many of his own hits, and play concerts around the world, he has appeared as a back-up musician for many of the world's most famous artists. Barney Bentall has also supported many non-profit and fund-raising events around Vancouver - so he really does have a "legendary heart".

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