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National policies can only be analyzed for each individual country. We therefore concentrate on relevant EU policies.
The Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) and the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) apply to the aquaculture and hydroponics components of aquaponics, respectively (European Commission 2012, European Commission 2013). Policies on food safety, animal health and welfare, plant health, and the environment (waste and water) also apply.
The Rural Development Policy, also referred to as the second pillar of CAP, focuses on increasing competitiveness and promoting innovation (Ragonnaud 2017). Each member state has at least one rural development program. Most countries have set goals to provide training, restructure and modernize existing farms, set up new farms, and reduce emissions. Measures against excessive use of inorganic fertilizers were introduced in the CAP as well as environmental policies and are regulated through the EU's Nitrates Directive (Directive 91/676/EEC 1991) and the Water Framework Directive (WFD).
The CFP reform and strategic guidelines for the sustainable development of EU aquaculture were issued by the Commission to assist EU countries and stakeholders with challenges that the sector is facing. The emphasis is on facilitating implementation of the Water Framework Directive as it relates to aquaculture (European Commission 2013).
The CFP requires the development of a multiannual national strategic plan in each member state with strategies to promote and develop the aquaculture sector (European Commission 2016). Taking into account their different histories and cultivated species, each member state can support their existing aquaculture technologies but also develop new ones, such as aquaponics. This strategy should lead to an increase in production and reductions in dependence on imports. The main actions planned by member states are simplification of administrative procedures, coordinated spatial planning, enhancement of competitiveness, and promotion of research and development.
In the framework of the CFP, an Aquaculture Advisory Council (AAC) has been established. The main objective of the AAC is to provide advice and recommendations to European institutions and member states on issues related to sustainable development of the aquaculture sector (Sheil 2013).
A goal of both CFP and CAP is to increase competitiveness and sustainability of aquaculture and agriculture, respectively (Massot 2017). One of the objectives in the CFP is to exploit competitive advantage by obtaining high-quality, health, and environmental production standards.
The goal of the food safety policy of the EU is to ensure safe and nutritious food from healthy animals and plants while supporting the food industry (European Commission 2014). The integrated food safety policy also includes animal welfare and plant health. In the strategy for animal welfare, there is an action on the welfare of farmed fish; however, there are no specific rules in place (European Commission 2012).
Environmental impacts of aquaculture are regulated under a range of EU legal requirements including water quality, biodiversity, and pollution. Environmental policies relevant for aquaponic operators are the strategy on the prevention and recycling of waste (European Commission 2011) and the seventh Environment
Action Program (EAP) under the EU Environmental Policy (European Union 2014).
Aquaponics can contribute to the development goals mentioned in these policies, with the main factors being reductions of water use and waste from fish production through nutrient recycling. Discharged water is converted into a resource and solid wastes can be upgraded as plant fertilizers. Because modern aquaponics is based on recirculating aquaculture systems, these operations are relatively independent of their location and can contribute to regional food production and value chains even in urban areas. Open aquaculture systems have constraints: water resource use, pollution, localized reduction in benthic biodiversity, significant dredging of water bodies, physical modification of land, changes in water flow, and introduction of alien species (European Union 2016). However, mitigation of most constraints is possible in aquaponic systems. Compared to hydroponic systems, aquaponics reduces the use of mineral, often unsustainably mined, fertilizers.
One of the priorities in the strategic guidelines on aquaculture is to improve access to space and water (European Commission 2013). Competition among different stakeholders and often strict environmental rules limit the further development of open aquaculture systems inside the EU. However, aquaponic systems can be located almost anywhere, including deserts and degraded soil and salty, sandy islands, since a closed-loop uses a minimum of water. Therefore, it can utilize space that is not suitable for other food production systems, like rooftops, abandoned industrial sites, and generally nonarable or contaminated land. Since aquaponics reuses 90—95% of the water, it relies much less on water availability compared to other systems like open aquaculture, hydroponics, and irrigation agriculture.
Just like in recirculating aquaculture systems, a benefit of larger commercial aquaponics systems is the possibility to obtain a high level of biosecurity, in which environmental conditions can be fully controlled ensuring a healthy environment for the fish (Badiola et al. 2012), thus minimizing the risk for diseases and parasite outbreaks (Yanong and Erlacher-Reid 2012). Because of the higher control on production, risk of losses is lower (Yanong and Erlacher-Reid 2012), which can provide aquaponic farmers with a competitive advantage over traditional farmers. On the other hand, using one nitrogen source to culture two products (Somerville et al. 2014) increases the investment risk as both fish and plant production must be maximized in order to make a profit. However, if this is done successfully, combined with the positive perceptions in Western markets of more environmentally friendly products, high revenues can be achieved (Somerville et al. 2014).
An objective in the strategy on the prevention and recycling of waste (European Commission 2011) includes introducing life-cycle thinking that considers a range of environmental impacts. It mentions that the prevention of waste is the priority, followed by reuse, recycling, recovery, and last disposal. Also, one of the priority areas in the seventh EAP targets transformation of the EU into a resource-efficient, low-carbon economy with a special focus on using waste as a resource (European Union 2014). Aquaponics systems minimize waste output (Goddek et al. 2015). The water in aquaponics systems is recirculated, thus wastewater is minimized. By using the fish process water for plant nutrition, organic waste from aquaculture is reused in the hydroponics component of the aquaponics system. The solid waste produced in an aquaponics system can be mineralized and returned to the system or utilized as compost for soil-based agriculture. Aquaponics also promotes local food production, thereby minimizing transport costs. Lastly, placing aquaponics farms in urban settings, it can provide ecological value in cities and play a role in adaptation to climate change.
The Seventh Framework Program (under the Multiannual Financial Framework of the European Commission) funded a couple of projects related to aquaponics. The EU Framework Program Horizon 2020 (challenge 2 "Food security, sustainable agriculture and forestry, marine and maritime and inland water research, and the bioeconomy" and challenge 5 "Climate action, environment, resource efficiency and raw materials") provides funding to several aquaponics initiatives including COST (European Cooperation in Science and Technology) Action FA1305 "The EU Aquaponics Hub: Realising Sustainable Integrated Fish and Vegetable Production for the EU" to promote innovation and capacity building by a network of researchers and commercial aquaponics companies.
Other possible funding opportunities for aquaponic development projects under the Multiannual Financial Framework of the European Commission include the European Innovation Partnership Agricultural Productivity and Sustainability (EIP-AGRI), a long term EU-Africa research and innovation partnership on food and nutrition security and sustainable agriculture (LEAP-AGRI), the European Innovation Council pilot Small and Medium-Sized Enterprises Instrument (SME Instrument), the ERANET MED initiative Partnership on Research and Innovation in the Mediterranean Area (PRIMA), and the European Maritime and Fisheries Fund (EMFF). The EMFF can support research institutions and universities as well as companies; however, it requires different rates of co-funding.
None of the EU policies and guidelines so far explicitly mentions aquaponics. According to DG MARE, regulations on aquaponics need to be resolved within the individual member states (COST Action FA1305 2017), e.g., involving action resulting from the respective national strategic plans. Even though there is no explicit EU framework for aquaponics, it is an innovative agricultural system that can contribute to many priorities set through EU policies and strategies. EU support through financial measures is assisting further development of the technology. However, this mostly targets research projects, while the sector also needs assistance for commercial development through support of proof-of-concept projects. As a matter of fact, there are so far very few successful commercial aquaponics systems operating in the EU, so currently, there might not be a necessity for an aquaponics policy. However, ultimately recognizing and covering the technology in existing policies will be beneficial for the development of the sector.