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Key drivers stated for aquaponic research are the global environmental, social and economic challenges identified by supranational authorities like the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations (UN) (DESA 2015) whose calls for sustainable and stable food production advance the 'need for new and improved solutions for food production and consumption' (1) (Junge et al. 2017; Konig et al. 2016). There is growing recognition that current agricultural modes of production cause wasteful overconsumption of environmental resources, rely on increasingly scarce and expensive fossil fuel, exacerbate environmental contamination and ultimately contribute to climate change (Pearson 2007). In our time of 'peak-everything' (Cohen 2012), 'business as usual' for our food system appears at odds with a sustainable and just future of food provision (Fischer et al. 2007). A food system revolution is urgently needed (Kiers et al. 2008; Foley et al. 2011), and as the opening chapters (Chaps. 1 and 2) of this book attest, aquaponics technology shows much promise. The enclosed systems of aquaponics offer an especially alluring convergence of potential resolutions that could contribute towards a more sustainable future (Kőmíves and Ranka 2015). But, we ask, what kind of sustainable future might aquaponics research and aquaponics technology contribute towards? In this chapter, we take a step back to consider the ambitions of our research and the functions of our technology.
In this chapter we situate current aquaponic research within the larger-scale shifts of outlook occurring across the sciences and beyond due to the problematic that has become known as 'the Anthropocene' (Crutzen and Stoermer 2000b). Expanding well beyond the confines of its original geological formulation (Lorimer 2017), the Anthropocene concept has become no less than 'the master narrative of our times' (Hamilton et al. 2015). It represents an urgent realisation that demands deep questions be asked about the way society organises and relates to the world, including the modus operandi of our research (Castree 2015). However, until now, the concept has been largely sidelined in aquaponic literature. This chapter introduces the Anthropocene as an obligatory frame of reference that must be acknowledged for any concerted effort towards future food security and sustainability.
We discuss how the Anthropocene unsettles some key tenets that have underpinned the traditional agriscience of the Green Revolution (Stengers 2018) and how this brings challenges and opportunities for aquaponic research. Aquaponics is an innovation that promises to contribute much towards the imperatives of sustainability and food security. But this emergent field is in an early stage that is characterised by limited resources, market uncertainty, institutional resistance with high risks of failure and few success stories—-an innovation environment where hype prevails over demonstrated outcomes (König et al. 2018). We suggest this situation is characterised by a misplaced techno-optimism that is unconducive to the deeper shifts towards sustainability that are needed of our food system.
Given this, we feel the aquaponics research community has an important role to play in the future development of this technology. We suggest a refocusing of aquaponics research around the key demands of our food system—-sustainability and food security. Such a task entails we more thoroughly consider the nature of sustainability, and so we draw on the insights from the fields of sustainability science and STS. Addressing sustainability in the Anthropocene obligates the need to attend more holistically the interacting biophysical, social, economic, legal and ethical dimensions that encroach on aquaponic systems (Geels 2011). This is no small task that places great demands on the way we produce and use knowledge. For this reason we discuss the need to develop what we call a 'critical sustainability knowledge' for aquaponics, giving pointers for possible ways forward, which include (1) expanding aquaponic research into an interdisciplinary research domain, (2) opening research up to participatory approaches in real-world contexts and (3) pursuing a solution-oriented approach for sustainability and food security outcomes.