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1.5 The Future of Aquaponics

5 months ago

7 min read

Technology has enabled agricultural productivity to grow exponentially in the last century, thus also supporting significant population growth. However, these changes also potentially undermine the capacity of ecosystems to sustain food production, to maintain freshwater and forest resources and to help regulate climate and air quality (Foley et al. 2005).

One of the most pressing challenges in innovative food production, and thus in aquaponics, is to address regulatory issues constraining the expansion of integrated technologies. A wide range of different agencies have jurisdiction over water, animal health, environmental protection and food safety, and their regulations are in some cases contradictory or are ill-suited for complex integrated systems (Joly et al. 2015). Regulations and legislation are currently one of the most confusing areas for producers and would-be entrepreneurs. Growers and investors need standards and guidelines for obtaining permits, loans and tax exemptions, yet the confusing overlap of responsibilities among regulatory agencies highlights the urgent need for better harmonization and consistent definitions. Regulatory frameworks are frequently confusing, and farm licensing as well as consumer certification remains problematic in many countries. The FAO (in 2015), the WHO (in 2017) and the EU (in 2016) all recently began harmonizing provisions for animal health/well-being and food safety within aquaponics systems and for export-import trade of aquaponic products. For instance, several countries involved in aquaponics are lobbying for explicit wording within the Codex Alimentarius, and a key focus within the EU, determined by the EU sponsored COST Action FA1305, the 'EU Aquaponics Hub', is currently on defining aquaponics as a clear and distinct entity. At present, regulations define production for both aquaculture and hydroponics, but have no provisions for merging of the two. This situation often creates excessive bureaucracy for producers who are required to license two separate operations or whose national legislation does not allow for co-culturing (Joly et al. 2015). The EU Aquaponics Hub, which has supported this publication (COST FA1305), defines aquaponics as 'a production system of aquatic organisms and plants where the majority (> 50%) of nutrients sustaining the optimal plant growth derives from waste originating from feeding the aquatic organisms' (see Chap. 7).

Consumer certification schemes also remain a difficult area for aquaponics producers in many parts of the world. For instance, in the United States and Australia, aquaponic products can be certified as organic, but not within the European Union.

From an economic perspective, aquaponics is in theory capable of increasing the overall value of fish farming or conventional hydroponics whilst also closing the food-water-energy cycle within a circular bio-based economy. In order to make small-scale aquaponics systems economically viable, aquaponics farmers generally have to operate in niche markets to obtain higher prices for products, so certification thus becomes very important.

The most pressing issues are whether aquaponics can become acceptable at the policy level. Food safety is a high priority for gaining public support, and although there is a much lowered pathogen risk in closed systems, thus implying less need for antimicrobials and pesticides, managing potential risks — or moreover managing perceptions of those risks, especially as they may affect food safety — is a high priority for government authorities and investors alike (Miličić et al. 2017). One concern that is often raised is the fear of pathogen transfer in sludge from fish to plants, but this is not substantiated in the literature (Chap. 6). As such, there is a need to allay any remaining food safety and biosecurity concerns through careful research and, where concerns may exist, to ascertain how it may be possible to manage these problems through improved system designs and/or regulatory frameworks.

Aquaponics is an emerging food production technology which has the ability to condense and compress production into spaces and places that would not normally be used for growing food. This not only means that it is exceptionally relevant in urban areas, where aquaponics can be placed on underutilized and unused places such as flat roofs, development sites, abandoned factories, housing estates and schools, but it provides a means both in the developed and developing world for people to take back part of the food production process by providing fresh local food to the market (van Gorcum et al. 2019). The integration of aquaponics with vertical farming and living wall technologies will, in time, most likely improve productivity by reducing the overall farming footprint with reduced land take and intensification.

The intense production methods in aquaponics rely on the knowledge of a combination of key factors which are highly suitable for use in teaching STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) subjects in schools. Aquaponics provides the teacher and student with opportunities to explore the realm of complex systems, their design and management and a host of other subject areas, including environmental sciences, water chemistry, biology and animal welfare. Aquaponics is also being used in prisons/correctional facilities, such as at the San Francisco County Jail, to help inmates gain skills and experience in aquaculture and horticulture that they can use on their release. In the domestic context, there is a growing trend to design countertop systems that can grow herbs as well as small systems that can be located in offices, where exotic fish provide a calming effect, whilst plants, as part of living walls, similarly provide an aesthetic backdrop and clean the air.

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Fig. 1.3 The number of papers published on 'hydroponics', 'RAS' and 'aquaponics' from 1980 to 2018 (data were collected from the Scopus database on 30 January 2019). Please note that the scale for 'RAS' is one order of magnitude higher than that for 'hydroponics' and 'aquaponics'

Aquaponics is a farming technology advancing rapidly from its first exploits in the last years of the twentieth century and the first decades of the twenty-first century. But it still is an 'emerging technology and science topic' (Junge et al. 2017) which is subject to a considerable amount of 'hype'. When comparing the number of aquaculture, hydroponic and aquaponic peer-reviewed papers, aquaponic papers are considerably lower (Fig. 1.3), but the numbers are rising and will continue to rise as aquaponics education, especially at university level, and general interest increases. A 'hype ratio' can be described as an indicator of the popularity of a subject in the public media relative to what is published in the academic press. This can, for example, be calculated by taking the search results in Google divided by the search results in Google Scholar. In the case of aquaponics, the hype ratio on 16 August 2016 was 1349, which is considerable when compared to the hype ratios of hydroponics (131) and recirculating aquaculture (17) (Junge et al. 2017). The sense one gets from this is that, indeed, aquaponics is an emerging technology but that there is enormous interest in the field which is likely to continue and increase over the next decades. The hype ratio, however, is likely to decline as more research is undertaken and scientific papers are published.

This book is aimed at the aquaponics researcher and practitioner, and it has been designed to discuss, explore and reveal the issues that aquaponics is addressing now and that will no doubt arise in the future. With such a broad spectrum of topics, it aims to provide a comprehensive but easily accessible overview of the rather novel scientific and commercial field of aquaponics. Apart from the production and technical side, this book has been designed to address trends in food supply and demand, as well as the various economic, environmental and social implications of this emerging technology. The book has been co-authored by numerous experts from around the world, but mostly from within the EU. Its 24 chapters cover the whole gamut of aquaponics areas and will provide a necessary textbook for all those interested in aquaponics and moving aquaponics forwards into the next decade.