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As discussed in this chapter, economic evaluations of aquaponic systems are still a very complex and difficult task at present. Although aquaponics is sometimes presented as an economically superior method of food production, there is no evidence for such generalised statements. Up to now, there is hardly any reliable data available for a comprehensive economic evaluation of aquaponics. That is partly because there is not "one aquaponics system", but there exist a variety of different systems operating in different locations under different conditions. For example, factors such as climatic conditions, which mainly affect the energy consumption of the systems, wage levels, workload required for operating the systems, and legal conditions have to be considered on the cost side. On the revenue side, factors such as the chosen fish-plant combination with its specific product prices, the option to manage the systems as organic production as well as the long-term public acceptance of the aquaponics systems and their products have an impact on the economic assessment. Not least, the economic evaluation of aquaponics in its strictest sense should be done in comparison to recirculating aquaculture systems and hydroponics systems as stand-alone systems.
Aquaponics constitutes a major communication challenge as a rather unknown food production system with high innovation levels and in most cases with high technological inputs. As food consumption in advanced societies is increasingly linked to some form of naturalness, major challenges in the communication of aquaponics systems and products can be expected. The limited evidence available suggests that this challenge can be managed under certain framework conditions but this needs high time, as well as financial and creative inputs. It has to be acknowledged that the reported high prices for aquaponics products only come at considerable costs of brand establishment. As any economic viability of aquaponic systems will critically depend on achievable prices, more research is needed to understand the different determinants of the customers' willingness to pay for aquaponics products.
Location decisions for aquaponics farming are a key determinant of economic viability as many production factors related to aquaponics production are not flexible in terms of space. This relates particularly to land. Aquaponics as a land-efficient production system can only count on this advantage in land-scarce regions. Comparatively, rural areas with relatively low land prices therefore cannot generate sufficient incentives unless there are other site-specific advantages, for example, waste energy supply from biogas plants. Though being land-efficient in general, aquaponics in urban contexts still competes for highly limited land resources. In functional markets, land would be allocated to those activities with the highest profits per unit of land and it is highly questionable if aquaponics will be able to compete with very efficient industrial or service-oriented activities in urban contexts. Therefore, aquaponics seems to fit only in urban areas that provide aquaponics with a competitive advantage over competing potential activities.
Extending the definition of aquaponics and including aquaponics farming as introduced by Palm et al. (2018) might align aquaponics much closer to traditional economic farming analyses. This wider definition of aquaponics refers to process water that is used for fertilisation combined with irrigation on fields. With this wider interpretation of aquaponics, it becomes possible to produce staple foods in aquaponic production systems. Since the nutrient absorption capacity of the agricultural area might be limited in some regions, this definition implicitly positions aquaponics as a competitor to pig, beef and poultry production. Since aquaculture uses less resources than pigs, beef and poultry with respect to the final output, this could become a viable option.
In traditional economic farm analyses, there is a strong technological and conceptual separation of animal and plant production. With less technological interaction in aquaponics farming as compared to aquaponics in its stricter senses, there will also be less complex economic evaluation as the two systems of fish and plant production can be modelled separately. To link the systems economically, system internal prices would have to be determined, e.g. prices for nutrients brought from fish production to fields of plant production.
Another issue is the prices obtained for final products from aquaponics farming. Evidence on achievable prices from such kind of production systems are completely lacking thus restricting reliable estimations on the economic viability as yet. With a stronger separation of fish and plant production, it might be feasible to use prices for conventional aquaculture products and conventional prices from plant production. This would assume that there is no price premium for aquaponics farming. To test whether this really is the case, price experiments combined with different communication tools have to be implemented.
From a communications perspective, there is the question of the perception of aquaponics farming as being superior to traditional farming approaches. At first glance, aquaponics farming might look like conventional livestock keeping only using a different type of animal. Communication efforts will have to focus on the higher efficiency levels of aquaculture as compared to other types of livestock production. Advertising plant products from aquaponics farming as being superior to products from conventional plant production might be a challenge and requires further in-depth analyses. However, one advantage with regard to communication might be the fact that a stronger separation of fish and plant production in aquaponics farming could facilitate organic certification. Organic labelling is expected to be a further advantage in communication efforts related to aquaponics. (It should be note that in the UK, at least, organic certification is tied to growing produce in soil and thus a different and special type of certification may need to be identified. For more on the issue of aquaponics and organic certification, see Chap. 19).
Finally, it is important to note that the interviewed European aquaponic companies, even those who abandoned their commercial aquaponics farming, remain hopeful for the future of aquaponics. They opted for aquaponics because of its sustainability potential and they still see that potential. They, acknowledge, however, that adoption of aquaponics is a gradual and long-term process, which cannot be just simply repeated in different locations but should be adapted to the local environment. As such, aquaponics remains one of the potentially sustainable technologies of the future, one which cannot (yet) be said to be able to properly compete on the market with its competitors, but one that will continue to need more public support and one whose adoption is determined not only by its commercial advantages, but much more on the public determination and goodwill. As stated in Chap. 16 of this publication, asking the question "under what circumstances can aquaponics outcompete traditional large scale food production methods?" is not the same as asking "to what extent can aquaponics meet the sustainability and food security demands of our age".