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16.8 Conclusion: Aquaponic Research into the Anthropocene

5 months ago

6 min read

The social—biophysical pressures of and on our food system converge in the Anthropocene towards what becomes seen as an unprecedented task for the global community, requiring 'nothing less than a planetary food revolution' (Rockström et al. 2017). The Anthropocene requires food production innovations that exceed traditional paradigms, whilst at the same time are able to acknowledge the complexity arising from the sustainability and food security issues that mark our times. Aquaponics is one technological innovation that promises to contribute much towards these imperatives. But this emergent field is in an early stage that is characterised by limited resources, market uncertainty, institutional resistance and high risks of failure—-an innovation environment where hype prevails over demonstrated outcomes. The aquaponics research community potentially holds an important place in the development path of this technology. As an aquaponics research community, we need to craft viable visions for the future.

We propose one such vision when we call for a 'sustainability first' research programme. Our vision follows Rockström et al.'s (2017) diagnosis that paradigm change requires shifting the research ethic away from traditional productivist avenues so that sustainability becomes the central locus of the innovation process. This task is massive because the multidimensional and context-bound nature of sustainability and food security issues is such that they cannot be resolved solely through technical means. The ethical- and value-laden dimensions of sustainability require a commitment to confront the complexities, uncertainty, ignorance and contestation that ensue such issues. All this places great demands on the knowledge we produce; not only how we distribute and exchange it, but also its very nature.

We propose the aquaponic field needs to pursue a 'critical sustainability knowledge'. When König et al. (2018) ask what sustainability experimentation settings would be needed to enable science, business, policy and consumers to 'answer sustainability questions without repeating the development path of either [RAS or hydroponics]', the point is clear—-we need to learn from the failures of the past. The current neoliberal climate is one that consistently opens 'sustainability' discussion up to (mis)appropriation as 'agribusiness mobilises its resources in an attempt to dominate discourse and to make its meaning of "alternative agriculture" the universal meaning' (Kloppenburg 1991). We need to build a critical sustainability knowledge that is wise to the limits of technocratic routes to sustainability, which is sensitive to the political potential of our technologies as well as the structural forms of resistance that limit their development.

A critical sustainability knowledge builds awareness of the limits of its own knowledge pathways and opens up to those other knowledge streams that are often pushed aside in attempts to expand scientific understanding and technological capacity. This is a call for interdisciplinarity and the depth it brings, but it goes further than this. Sustainability and food security outcomes have little impact if they can only be generated in the lab. Research must be contextualised: we need 'to produce and embed scientific knowledge into local innovation systems' (51) (Caron et al. 2014). Building co-productive links with aquaponics communities already existing in society means forging the social and institutional structures that can enable our communities to continually learn and adapt to new knowledge, values, technologies and environmental change. Together, we need to deliberate on the visions and the values of our communities and explore the potential sociotechnical pathways that might realise such visions. Central to this, we need systems of organising and testing the sustainability and food security claims that are made of this technology (Pearson et al. 2010; Nugent 1999) so that greater transparency and legitimation might be brought to the entire field: entrepreneurs, enterprises, researchers and activists alike.

If all this seems like a tall order, that's because it is. The Anthropocene calls for a huge rethink in the way society is being organised, and our food system is central to this. There is a chance, we believe, that aquaponics has a part to play in this. But if our hopes are not to get lost in the hype bubble of hollow sustainability chatter that marks our neoliberal times, we have to demonstrate that aquaponics offers something different. As a final remark, we revisit de la Bellacasa's (2015) point that: 'agricultural intensification is not only a quantitative orientation (yield increase), but entails a "way of life"'. If this is the case, then the pursuit of sustainable intensification demands that we find a new way of living. We need sustainability solutions that acknowledge this fact and research communities that are responsive to it.

  1. For instance, consider the following statement issued by Monsanto: 'The main uses of GM crops are to make them insecticide- and herbicide tolerant. They don't inherently increase the yield. They protect the yield'. Quoted in E. Ritch, 'Monsanto Strikes Back at Germany, UCS', Cleantech.com (April 17, 2009). Accessed on July 18, 2009.

  2. Especially important here are the effects of climate change, as well as the 'superweed' phenomenon of increasingly resistant pests that significantly diminish yields.

  3. Productivist discourse invariably ignores Amartya Sen's (1981, 154; Roberts 2008, 263; WFP 2009, 17) classic point that the volume and availability of food alone is not a sufficient explanation for the persistence of world hunger. It is well established that enough food exists to feed in excess of the world's current population (OECD 2009, 21)

  4. Although the calculations are complex and contested, one common estimate is that industrial agriculture requires an average 10 calories of fossil fuels to produce a single calorie of food (Manning 2004), which might rise to 40 calories in beef (Pimentel 1997).

  5. Externalities of our current food system are often ignored or heavily subsidised away. Moore (2015: 187) describes the situation as 'a kind of "ecosystem services" in reverse': 'Today, a billion pounds of pesticides and herbicides are used each year in American agriculture. The long recognized health impacts have been widely studied. Although the translation of such "externalities" into the register of accumulation is imprecise, their scale is impressive, totalling nearly \$17 billion in unpaid costs for American agriculture in the early twenty-first century'. On externalities see: Tegtmeier and Duffy (2004).