“If it was easy, everyone would be doing it. Still, the benefits of aquaponics and living soil are extraordinary,” says Myrna Gillis, CEO of Aqualitas. The company is Canada’s first Clean Green Certified producer of cannabis, with a cultivation process that combines organic living soil and nutrient-rich water provided by over 800 koi fish. “At the moment, there are no other cannabis growers doing aquaponics at our large scale. However, we are fully expecting aquaponics to become the way of the future in agriculture.”
Aqualitas CEO Myrna Gillis on the left
How does the process work?
The company uses living water, which provides nutrients generated from the fish that are in their system. In their large indoor tanks they have koi fish. The solid waste from the fish is separated out of the system and is used as a supplemental phosphorus nutrient. “The liquid nutrient, however, is the primary nutrient we use. It goes from the fish tank to a filter that converts the ammonia into nitrate, which is a great fertilizer for the plants. After the filtration process, the water gets pumped to the grow rooms, where we put it in a soil medium that also has microbials in it. This helps to break down the nutrients, so that it is more readily available for the plant.”
By combining living soil and living water, Aqualitas is mimicking the natural way plants grow. And the closer you get to mimicking nature, the healthier the plants are, Gillis explains. “When compared to other ways of growing, we have improved terpene profiles, improved potency and cannabinoid profiles. The plants are also more healthy in general. And when they are healthier, they are more resistant to pests and diseases, as well as mold and mildew.”
As a result of their cultivation process, their cannabis is also highly consistent in potency. “If we have a strain with 22% potency, we will produce it with a 22-24% potency over 90% of the time. Therefore, our cannabis is frequently used in research projects, as consistency is an important aspect for medical cannabis. For example, our products are currently used for studies on PTSD, MS, and chemo induced nausea. When we first started in 2014, we had a commitment to advance the science of cannabis. Therefore, we are very excited to be part of these collaborations with researchers around the world, and are hoping to do more in the future.”
Why koi fish?
Aqualitas uses koi fish for their aquaponics system, which is not a common choice. “Salmon, trout, or tilapia are the fish that are frequently used, as the producers then also harvest the fish. Instead, we keep our koi fish for their life cycle and do not sell them. By not selling them, we don’t have to change our fish every three to nine months, which allows for a much more secure biosphere. Every time you bring in new fish, that comes with the potential of introducing diseases or health issues into the system. Koi fish live a long life, and are used to their environment being in captivity, so they are very stable fish to keep in an indoor environment,” Gillis explains.
Danielle Maitland, Aquaponics Development Supervisor
The challenges of aquaponics
Despite the benefits it has on the plant, aquaponics does not come without its challenges. “If it was an easy process, all growers would be reaping the major benefits of aquaponics. There is an added layer of complexity when you are dealing with living beings and you have to ensure their health. As a result, we probably have to test our water more than other growers, as we need to make sure that the system is in balance. In addition, it usually takes at least 9 months for the beneficial bacteria to build up in the system. Some growers do not have the patience to wait for the right level of nutrients to build up and they want to start growing right away, which is understandable.”
Jake Ward, Head Grower
Aquaponics as the future
Still, Gillis expects aquaponics to become the way of the future for agriculture. “Not only are the benefits on the plants extraordinary, it is also a great solution to environmental issues. In just the last 12 months, many catastrophic events have occurred that have destroyed crops, from fires to droughts to hurricanes. Over the years, it is becoming more and more challenging to have access to arable land and clean water, so aquaponics is a great solution. By using this type of cultivation you immediately have two sources to harvest, the fish as well as the produce or flowering product. You are also not relying on nutrients that are petroleum extracted and you have food that is closer to the market.”
And being environmentally friendly is something the company is very passionate about, which is part of the reason why they cultivate organically. “We were the first Canadian licensed producers to receive the Clean Green Certification, which confirms that you are meeting the international standards for organic cultivation. We are third party audited and verified by lab tests that we don’t use any pesticides or other products that would not meet the organic approval. But it also goes beyond your specific cultivation. You have to commit to sustainable packaging and reduce your carbon footprint by 5% per year. In addition, we commit to fair wages and diversity in the work space.”
For more information: