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16.5 Aquaponic Potential or Misplaced Hope?

5 months ago

12 min read

Contemporary aquaponic research has shown keen awareness of particular concerns raised in the Anthropocene problematic. Justifications for aquaponic research have tended to foreground the challenge of food security on a globe with an increasing human population and ever strained resource base. For instance, König et al. (2016) precisely situate aquaponics within the planetary concerns of Anthropocene discourse when they state: 'Assuring food security in the twenty-first century within sustainable planetary boundaries requires a multi-faceted agro-ecological intensification of food production and the decoupling from unsustainable resource use'. Towards these important sustainability goals, it is claimed that aquaponic technology shows much promise (Goddek et al. 2015). The innovative enclosed systems of aquaponics offer an especially alluring convergence of potential resolutions that could contribute towards a more sustainable future.

Proponents of aquaponics often stress the ecological principles at the heart of this emerging technology. Aquaponic systems harness the positive potential of a more or less simple ecosystem, in order to reduce the use of finite inputs whilst simultaneously reducing waste by-products and other externalities. On these grounds, aquaponic technology can be viewed as a primary example of 'sustainable intensification' (Garnett et al. 2013) or, more precisely, as a form of 'ecological intensification' since its founding principles are based on the management of serviceproviding organisms towards quantifiable and direct contributions to agricultural production (Bommarco et al. 2013). From this agroecological principle flow a great number of potential sustainability benefits. Chapters 1 and 2 of this book do an exemplary job of highlighting these, detailing the challenges faced by our food system and situating aquaponics science as the potential locus for a range of sustainability and food security interventions. There is no need to repeat these points again, but it is worth noting this perceived convergence of potential resolutions is what drives research and strengthens the 'conviction that this technology has the potential to play a significant role in food production in the future' (7) (Junge et al. 2017).

However, despite the considerable claims made by its proponents, the future of aquaponics is less than certain. Just what kind of role aquaponics might play in transitions to sustainable food provision is still largely up for debate—-crucially, we must stress, the publication of sustainability and food security outcomes of aquaponic systems remain conspicuous by their absence across Europe (König et al. 2018). On paper, the 'charismatic' attributes of aquaponics ensure that it can easily be presented as a 'silver bullet' type of innovation that gets to the heart of our food system's deepest sustainability and food security issues (Brooks et al. 2009). Such images have been able to garner considerable attention for aquaponics far beyond the confines of academic research—-consider, for instance, the significant production of online aquaponic 'hype' in comparison to similar fields, usefully pointed out by Junge et al. (2017). It is here we may take time to point out the relationship between the perceived potential of aquaponics and 'techno-optimism'.

The introduction of every new technology is accompanied by myths that spur further interest in that technology (Schoenbach 2001). Myths are circulated amongst early adopters and are picked up by the general media often long before the scientific community has time to thoroughly analyse and answer to their claims. Myths, as Schoenbach states (2001, 362), are widely believed because they 'comprise a clear-cut and convincing explanation of the world'. These powerful explanations are able to energise and align individual, community and also institutional action towards particular ends. The 'beauty' of aquaponics, if we can call it that, is that the concept can often render down the complexity of sustainability and food security issues into clear, understandable and scalable systems metaphors. The ubiquitous image of the aquaponic cycle—-water flowing between fish, plants and bacteria—-that elegantly resolves food system challenges is exemplary here. However, myths on technology, whether optimistic or pessimistic, share a technodeterministic vision of the relation between technology and society (Schoenbach 2001). Within the techno-deterministic vision of technology, it is the technology that causes important changes in society: if we manage to change the technology, we thus manage to change the world. Regardless whether the change is for the better (techno-optimism) or the worse(technophobia), the technology by itself creates an effect.

Techno-determinist views have been thoroughly critiqued on sociological, philosophical (Bradley 2011), Marxist (Hornborg 2013), material-semiotic (Latour 1996) and feminist (Haraway 1997) grounds. These more nuanced approaches to technological development would claim that technology by itself does not bring change to society; it is neither inherently good nor bad but is always embedded within society's structures, and it is those structures that enable the use and effect of the technology in question. To one degree or another, technology is an emergent entity, the effects of which we cannot know in advance (de Laet and Mol 2000). This might seem like an obvious point, but techno-determinism remains a strong, if often latent, feature within our contemporary epistemological landscape. Our innovationdriven, technological societies are maintained by discursive regimes that hold on to the promise of societal renewal through technological advancement (Lave et al. 2010). Such beliefs have been shown to have an important normative role within expert communities whether they be scientists, entrepreneurs or policymakers (Franklin 1995; Soini and Birkeland 2014).

The rise of aquaponics across Europe is intertwined with specific interests of various actors. We can identify at least five societal processes that led to the development of aquaponics: (a) interest of public authorities in funding high-tech solutions for problems of sustainability; (b) venture capital financing, motivated by the successes in IT startups, looking for 'the next big thing' that will perhaps discover the new 'unicorn' (startup companies valued at over \$1 billion); (c) mass media event-focused interest in snapshot reporting on positive stories of new aquaponics startups, fuelled by the public relations activities of these startups, with rare media follow-up reporting on the companies that went bust; (d) internetsupported growth of enthusiastic, do-it-yourself aquaponics communities, sharing both sustainability values and love for tinkering with new technology; (e) interests of urban developers to find economically viable solutions for vacant urban spaces and greening of urban space; and (f) research communities focused on developing technological solutions to impending sustainability and food security problems. To a greater or lesser degree, the spectre of techno-optimistic hope permeates the development of aquaponics.

Although the claims of techno-optimist positions are inspiring and able to precipitate the investment of money, time and resources from diverse actors, the potential for such standpoints to generate justice and sustainability has been questioned on scales from local (Leonard 2013) and regional issues (Hultman 2013) to global imperatives (Hamilton 2013). And it is at this point, we might consider the ambitions of our own field. A good starting point would be the 'COST action FA1305', which has been an important facilitator of Europe's aquaponic research output over recent years, with a number of publications acknowledging the positive impact of the action in enabling research (Miličić et al. 2017; Delaide et al. 2017; Villarroel et al. 2016). Like all COST actions, this EU-funded transnational networking instrument has acted as a hub for aquaponic research in Europe, galvanising and broadening the traditional networks amongst researchers by bringing together experts from science, experimental facilities and entrepreneurs. The original mission statement of COST action FA1305 reads as follows:

Aquaponics has a key role to play in food provision and tackling global challenges such as water scarcity, food security, urbanization, and reductions in energy use and food miles. The EU acknowledges these challenges through its Common Agriculture Policy and policies on Water Protection, Climate Change, and Social Integration. A European approach is required in the globally emerging aquaponics research field building on the foundations of Europe's status as a global centre of excellence and technological innovation in the domains of aquaculture and hydroponic horticulture. The EU Aquaponics Hub aims to the development of aquaponics in the EU, by leading the research agenda through the creation of a networking hub of expert research and industry scientists, engineers, economists, aquaculturists and horticulturalists, and contributing to the training of young aquaponic scientists. The EU Aquaponics Hub focuses on three primary systems in three settings; (1) "cities and urban areas" — urban agriculture aquaponics, (2) "developing country systems" — devising systems and technologies for food security for local people and (3) "industrial scale aquaponics"— providing competitive systems delivering cost effective, healthy and sustainable local food in the EU. (http://www.cost.eu/COST_Actions/fa/FA1305, 12.10.2017, emphasis added).

As the mission statement suggests, from the outset of COST action FA1305, high levels of optimism were placed on the role of aquaponics in tackling sustainability and food security challenges. The creation of the COST EU Aquaponics Hub was to 'provide a necessary forum for 'kick-starting' aquaponics as a serious and potentially viable industry for sustainable food production in the EU and the world' (COST 2013). Indeed, from the authors' own participation within COST FA1305, our lasting experience was without doubt one of being part of a vibrant, enthused and highly skilled research community that were more or less united in their ambition to make aquaponics work towards a more sustainable future. Four years down the line since the Aquaponic Hub's mission statement was issued, however, the sustainability and food security potential of aquaponics remains just that—-potential. At present it is uncertain what precise role aquaponics can play in Europe's future food system (König et al. 2018).

The commonly observed narrative that aquaponics provides a sustainable solution to the global challenges agriculture faces unveils a fundamental misconception of what it is actually capable to achieve. The plant side of aquaponics is horticulture, not agriculture, producing vegetables and leafy greens with high water content and low nutritional value compared to the staple foods agriculture on farmland produces. A quick comparison of current agricultural area, horticultural area and protected horticultural area, 184.332 kmsup2/sup, 2.290 kmsup2/sup (1,3%) and 9,84 kmsup2/sup (0,0053%), in Germany, reveals the flaw in the narrative. Even if considering a much higher productivity in aquaponics through the utilisation of controlled environment systems, aquaponics is not even close to having the potential to make a real impact on agricultural practice. This becomes even more obvious when the ambition to be a 'food system of the future' ends in the quest for high-value crops (e.g. microgreens) that can be marketed as gourmet gastronomy.

It is well known that the development of sustainable technology is characterised by uncertainties, high risks and large investments with late returns (Alkemade and Suurs 2012). Aquaponics, in this regard, is no exception; only handful commercially operating systems exist across Europe (Villarroel et al. 2016). There appears considerable resistance to the development of aquaponic technology. Commercial projects have to contend with comparatively high technological and management complexity, significant marketing risks, as well as an uncertain regulatory situation that until now persists (Joly et al. 2015). Although it is difficult to pin down the rate of startup failure, the short history of commercial aquaponics across Europe might well be summed up as 'Small successes and big failures' (Haenen 2017). It is worth pointing out also that the pioneers already involved in aquaponics at the moment across Europe are unclear if their technology is bringing about any improvements in sustainability (Villarroel et al. 2016). Recent analysis from König et al. (2018) has shown how the challenges to aquaponics development derive from a host of structural concerns, as well as the technology's inherent complexity. Combined, these factors result in a high-risk environment for entrepreneurs and investors, which has produced a situation whereby startup facilities across Europe are forced to focus on production, marketing and market formation over the delivery of sustainability credentials (König et al. 2018). Aside from the claims of great potential, the sombre reality is that it remains to be seen just what impact aquaponics can have on the entrenched food production and consumption regimes operating in contemporary times. The place for aquaponic technology in the transition towards more sustainable food systems, it seems, has no guarantee.

Beyond the speculation of techno-optimism, aquaponics has emerged as a highly complex food production technology that holds potential but is faced with steep challenges. In general, there exists a lack of knowledge about how to direct research activities to develop such technologies in a way that preserves their promise of sustainability and potential solutions to pressing food system concerns (Elzen et al. 2017). A recent survey conducted by Villarroel et al. (2016) found that from 68 responding aquaponic actors spread across 21 European countries, 75% were involved in research activities and 30.8% in production, with only 11.8% of those surveyed actually selling fish or plants in the past 12 months. It is clear that the field of aquaponics in Europe is still mainly shaped by actors from research. In this developmental environment, we believe the next phase of aquaponic research will be crucial to developing the future sustainability and food security potential of this technology.

Interviews (König et al. 2018) and the quantitative surveys (Villarroel et al. 2016) of the European aquaponic field have indicated there is mixed opinion regarding the vision, motivations and expectations about the future of aquaponics. In light of this, Konig et al. (2018) have raised concerns that a diversity of visions for aquaponic technology might hinder the coordination between actors and ultimately disrupt the development of 'a realistic corridor of acceptable development paths' for the technology (König et al. 2018). From an innovation systems perspective, emergent innovations that display an unorganised diversity of visions can suffer from 'directionality failure' (Weber and Rohracher 2012) and ultimately fall short of their perceived potentials. Such perspectives run in line with positions from sustainability science that stress the importance of 'visions' for creating and pursuing desirable futures (Brewer 2007). In light of this, we offer up one such vision for the field of aquaponics. We argue that aquaponics research must refocus on a radical sustainability and food security agenda that is fit for the impending challenges faced in the Anthropocene.