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As we saw earlier, it has been stressed that the goal to move towards sustainable intensification grows from the acknowledgment of the limits of the conventional agricultural development paradigm and its systems of innovation. Acknowledging the need for food system innovations that exceed the traditional paradigm and that can account for the complexity arising from sustainability and food security issues, Fischer et al. (2007) have called for no less than 'a new model of sustainability' altogether. Similarly, in their recent plea for global efforts towards sustainable intensification, Rockström et al. (2017) have pointed out that a paradigm shift in our food system entails challenging the dominant research and development patterns that maintain the 'productivity first' focus whilst subordinating sustainability agendas to a secondary, 'mitigating' role. Instead, they call for a reversal of this paradigm so that 'sustainable principles become the entry point for generating productivity enhancements'. Following this, we suggest a sustainability first vision for aquaponics as one possible orientation that can both offer coherence to the field and guide its development towards the proclaimed goals of sustainability and food security.
As with most calls for sustainability, our sustainability first proposal might sound rather obvious and unchallenging at first glance, if not completely redundant—- surely, we could say, aquaponics is all about sustainability. But history would remind us that making sustainability claims is an agreeable task, whereas securing sustainability outcomes is far less certain (Keil 2007). As we have argued, the 'sustainability' of aquaponics currently exists as potential. Just how this potential translates into sustainability outcomes must be a concern for our research community.
Our 'sustainability first' proposal is far from straightforward. First and foremost, this proposal demands that, if our field is to justify itself on the grounds of sustainability, we must get to grips with the nature of sustainability itself. In this regard, we feel there is much to be learned from the growing arena of sustainability science as well as Science and Technology Studies (STS). We will find that maintaining a sustainability focus within aquaponic research represents a potentially huge shift in the direction, composition and ambition of our research community. Such a task is necessary if we are to direct the field towards coherent and realistic goals that remain focussed on sustainability and food security outcomes that are relevant for the Anthropocene.
Taking sustainability seriously is a massive challenge. This is because, at its core, sustainability is fundamentally an ethical concept raising questions about the value of nature, social justice, responsibilities to future generations, etc. and encompasses the multidimensional character of human-environment problems (Norton 2005). As we discussed earlier, the sustainability thresholds that might be drawn up concerning agricultural practices are diverse and often cannot be reconciled in entirety, obligating the need for 'trade-offs' (Funtowicz and Ravetz 1995). Choices have to be made in the face of these trade-offs and most often the criteria upon which such choices are based depend not only upon scientific, technical or practical concerns but also on norms and moral values. It goes without saying, there is little consensus on how to make these choices nor is there greater consensus on the norms and moral values themselves. Regardless of this fact, inquiries into values are largely absent from the mainstream sustainability science agenda, yet as Miller et al. (2014) assert, 'unless the values [of sustainability] are understood and articulated, the unavoidable political dimensions of sustainability will remain hidden behind scientific assertions'. Such situations prevent the coming together of and democratic deliberation between communities—-a certain task for achieving more sustainable pathways.
Taking note of the prominent place of values in collective action towards sustainability and food security, scholars from the field of science and technology studies have highlighted that rather than be treated as an important externality to research processes (often dealt with separately or after the fact), values must be moved upstream in research agendas (Jasanoff 2007). When values become a central part of sustainability research, along comes the acknowledgement that decisions can no longer be based on technical criteria alone. This has potentially huge impacts on the research process, because traditionally what might have been regarded as the sole remit of 'expert knowledge' must now be opened up to other knowledge streams (for instance, 'lay', indigenous and practitioner knowledge) with all the epistemological difficulty this entails (Lawrence 2015). In response to these problems, sustainability science has emerged as a field that aims to transcend disciplinary boundaries and seeks to involve non-scientists in solution-oriented, context-determined, research processes that are focused on outcome generation (Miller et al. 2014).
A key question in these discussions is knowledge. Sustainability problems are often caused by the complex interplay of diverse social—ecological factors, and the knowledge needed for effectively governing these challenges has become progressively more dispersed and specialised (Ansell and Gash 2008). The knowledge required for understanding how sustainability concerns hang together is too complex to be organised by a single body and results in the need to integrate different types of knowledge in new ways. This is certainly the case for our own field: like other modes of sustainable intensification (Caron et al. 2014), aquaponic systems are characterised by inherent complexity (Junge et al. 2017) which places great emphasis on new forms of knowledge production (FAO 2013). Complexity of aquaponic systems derives not only from their 'integrated' character but stems also from the wider economic, institutional and political structures that impact the delivery of aquaponics and its sustainability potential (König et al. 2016). Developing solutions towards sustainable aquaponic food systems may well involve contending with diverse realms of understanding from engineering, horticultural, aquacultural, microbiological, ecological, economic and public health research, to the practical and experiential knowledge concerns of practitioners, retailers and consumers. What this amounts to is not just a grouping together of ideas and positions, but entails developing entirely novel modes of knowledge production and an appreciation to bridge 'knowledge gaps' (Caron et al. 2014). Abson et al. (2017) have identified three key requirements of new forms of knowledge production that can foster sustainability transformations: (i) the explicit inclusion of values, norms and context characteristics into the research process to produce 'socially robust' knowledge; (ii) mutual learning processes between science and society, involving a rethink of the role of science in society; and (iii) a problem- and solution-oriented research agenda. Drawing upon these three insights can help our field develop what we call a 'critical sustainability knowledge' for aquaponics. Below we discuss three areas our research community can address that we consider crucial to unlocking the sustainability potential of aquaponics: partiality, context and concern. Developing an understanding of each of these points will help our field pursue a solution-oriented approach for aquaponic sustainability and food security outcomes.