John and Nancy Jack Todd have been pioneering techniques for treating waste water through the use of contained ecosystems they call Living Machines. Their prototypes have proven that wastes of all kinds can become safe and cost-effective inputs for the production of food, non-food crops, and fish. Recently, they have begun to apply their approach toward building the foundations of what they believe will be a new era of urban food production.
Kathryn: Can you describe how "Living Machines" turn wastes into resources?
Nancy: A Living Machine is a contained ecosystem which is designed to accomplish a specific task or series of tasks. In the case of food waste treatment, waste water is guided through a series of cylinders – each one with a different ecosystem, each with a different combination of microbes, plants, and animals. As the water passes through the various systems, different contaminants from bacterial to heavy metals to industrial waste are removed. As you move along in the process, toward the mid-section of the tank, you begin to introduce higher plants, snails, and fish.
At the end of the series, the water is sufficiently restored to grow fish. The algae and plankton used to clean the water also feed the fish. New Alchemy pioneered aquaculture with tilapia, a mild-tasting fish originating in Africa. Tilapia is mainly vegetarian, so it does not concentrate contaminants as do fish higher on the food chain. In supermarkets it sells from about $6 per pound.
The irony is, 25 years after we first started to work with aquaculture, the east coast fishery is virtually exhausted. Representatives of a local fisherman’s organization came to us this spring and asked us if we would teach them how to grow tilapia. It’s both very exciting and a sad irony. We are also working on growing other kinds of fish to reintroduce to the seas as part of an effort to restore depleted ocean fisheries.
Kathryn: Why use Living Machines in urban food production?
Nancy: It makes economic sense. Compared with conventional food production of vegetables and fish, using Living Machines for city farming has a lot it in its favor, including proximity to market, potential for direct retail sales, fresh food and live food sales, transport savings, no chemicals, and an available labor pool.
We have proposed several urban-based projects to municipal governments that convert non-human and uncontaminated wastes from food processing into food. To do this we use waste water treated by Living Machines to grow fish, vegetables, herbs, fruit, and flowers. The process not only takes care of wastes, but returns a profit through fish and plant sales.
Kathryn: What is the driving force behind your work?
Nancy: The primary motivation is restoration or healing technology. If you look at the state of the planet, the whole industrial and post-industrial dynamic is simply unnecessary. John Todd believes that by using living technologies, by working with the evolutionary intelligence of the natural world, we could reduce the human footprint on the planet by as much as 90 percent.
Nature works on the principle that waste is simply a resource out of place. We’re teetering on the edge of this vast potential, and if we start to design our food growing systems, manufacturing systems, and pollution prevention systems along these lines it will be very beneficial – certainly for the planet. And if you restore a healthy environment, you also help restore a healthier population, both psychologically and physically.
Living Machines are now being used to treat wastes in six states, the UK, Australia, and Canada. Nancy Jack Todd is co-founder of Ocean Arks International, and editor of Annals of Earth. For more information, or to subscribe to Annals of Earth, write Ocean Arks International, 1 Locust St., Falmouth, MA 02540; tel. 508/540-6801.