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The growth of aquaponics and generalized claims that aquaponics is more sustainable than other forms of food production has stimulated discussion and research into how sustainable these systems actually are. Life cycle assessment (LCA) is one key quantification method that can be used to analyze sustainability in both agriculture and the built environments by evaluating environmental impacts of products throughout their lifespan. For a building, an LCA can be divided into two types of impact — embodied impact which includes material extraction, manufacture, construction, demolition and disposal/reuse of said materials, and operational impact which refers to building systems maintenance (Simonen 2014). Similarly, conducting an assessment of an agricultural product can be also divided into the structural impact of the building envelope and system infrastructure, production impact associated with continuous cultivation and post-harvest impact of packaging, storage, and distribution (Payen et al. 2015). Conducting an LCA of an aquaponic farm requires the simultaneous understanding of both building and agricultural impacts since there is an overlap in the envelope's operational phase with a crop's production phase. The way a building operates its heating, cooling, and lighting systems directly influences the cultivation of the crop; conversely, different types of crops require different environmental conditions. Numerous studies exist comparing LCA results for different building types situated in different contexts (Zabalza Bribián et al. 2009). Similarly, LCA has been used by the agricultural sector to compare efficiencies for different crops and cultivation systems (He et al. 2016; Payen et al. 2015). Evaluating the performance of controlled environment agriculture and aquaponics in particular requires a skillful integration of the two methodologies into one assessment (Sanyé-Mengual 2015).
The proposed aquaponic farm LCA framework (Fig. 21.11) is intentionally broad to capture a wide range of farm typologies found in the field. In order to apply the results of LCA to existing farms, factors such as climate and economic data must be included to validate environmental assessment (Goldstein et al. 2016; Rothwell et al. 2016)
The following section discusses a collection of aquaponic farm enclosure design strategies based on the LCA inventory of aquaponic farms that synthesizes existing literature with case studies and suggests directions for future work. The unique integration of aquaponic and building-related impacts is of particular interest.
Table 21.3 Comparison of controlled environment agriculture typologies
table thead tr class="header" thCEA type/th th Benefits /th th Challenges /th th Cost and revenuesupa/sup /th /tr /thead tbody tr class="odd" td rowspan=2 Medium-tech greenhouses/td td Relies almost entirely on solar energy, low additional energy requirement /td td Limited environmental control options, susceptible to environmental fluctuations /td td rowspan=2 Lower up-front/ construction cost, (approx. 30–100 $/msup2/sup) /td /tr tr class="even" td Less reliance on non-renewable materials and energy sources /td td Only applicable to fish species with a large temperature tolerance, (if tanks are in the greenhouse) /td /tr tr class="odd" td rowspan=2 Passive solar greenhouses/td td Relies on passive systems, uses thermal mass, (including the fish tanks) to buffer temperature swings /td td Control with passive systems needs more experience and deliberate design /td td rowspan=2 Lower up-front/ construction cost, (approx. 30–100 $/msup2/sup) /td /tr tr class="even" td Low energy consumption, potentially without the need for any fossil fuel /td td Require supplemental lighting, if located in northern latitudes due to low light levels /td /tr tr class="odd" td rowspan=2 High-tech greenhouses/td td Highest levels of controls /td td Relies on active systems for heat, cooling, ventilation and supplemental lighting /td td rowspan=2 High up-front/ construction cost, (approx. 100–200 $/msup2/sup and more) /td /tr tr class="even" td High productivity with the potential to scale up /td td High energy consumption and operation cost /td /tr tr class="odd" td rowspan=5 Rooftop greenhouses/td td Highest levels of controls /td td rowspan=2 Relies on active systems for heat, cooling, ventilation and supplemental lighting /td td rowspan=5 Very high up-front/ construction cost (approx. 300–500 $/msup2/sup) /td /tr tr class="even" td High productivity /td /tr tr class="odd" td rowspan=3 Potential for energetic and environmental synergies, if integrated with host building /td td High energy consumption and operation cost /td /tr tr class="even" td Requires code compliance at the level of commercial office buildings /td /tr tr class="odd" td Transport of supplies to rooftop is an infrastructural challenge /td /tr tr class="even" td rowspan=4 Indoor growing spaces/td td Adaptive reuse of industrial buildings possible /td td Depends entirely on electrical lighting and active control systems for heating, cooling, and ventilation /td td Up-front/construction cost can be lower if existing building can be used /td /tr tr class="odd" td High productivity per unit of footprint though stacked growing systems /td td rowspan=3 High energy consumption and operation cost /td td rowspan=3 Cost depends also on the growing system, stacking multiple levels /td /tr tr class="even" td High level of insulation possible /td /tr tr class="odd" td Reduced heat loss during winter months /td /tr /tbody /table
supa/sup Based on Proksch (2017)
Fig. 21.11 Example of an integrated LCA process including building and aquaponic system performance. (Based on Sanyé-Mengual et al. 2015).
Structure Materials and Construction Embodied energy is the calculation of the sum of energy used to extract, refine, process, transport, produce, and assemble a material or product. Embodied carbon is the amount of COsub2/sub emitted to produce the same material or product. Compared to conventional open-field agricultural operations, the embodied impact of a controlled environment growing system is greater due to increased material extraction and manufacture at the construction stage (Ceron-Palma et al. 2012). For example, in the ICTA-ICP rooftop greenhouse, the structure of the envelope generates 75% more Global Warming Potential (GWP) than a soil-based multi-tunnel greenhouse structure due to the quantity of polycarbonate used in construction (Sanyé-Mengual et al. 2015). Similarly, a buildingintegrated greenhouse simulation situated in Boston resulted in increased environmental impacts at the construction stage, due to the extraction of iron ores for the manufacture of structural steel (Goldstein 2017). Embodied impacts associated with controlled environment envelopes can be mitigated through smart material use (given that building code adjustments are made to avoid over-sizing structural members) but would nevertheless surpass those of traditional agriculture. Growing food in a constructed envelope will always be more resource-intensive at the beginning compared to simply planting vegetables in an open field, though will also dramatically increase the amount of food that can be produced per area footprint in the same timeframe.
To avoid structure-related environmental impacts, some aquaponic operations make use of existing buildings instead of constructing a new envelope. Urban Organics in St. Paul, Minnesota, USA refurbished two brewery buildings as their indoor growing spaces. In another example of adaptive reuse, The Plant in Chicago, Illinois, USA operates its food incubator and urban farm collective in a 1925 factory building previously used by Peer Foods as a meat-packaging facility (Fig. 21.12). Existing insulation and refrigeration equipment were repurposed to control temperature fluctuations in the experimental aquaponic facility.
Aquaponic Equipment and Substrate When integrated into buildings, the material choice for aquaponic tanks becomes an important design consideration, since it may limit assembly and transport into the building. For example, polyethylene parts can be assembled on-site using plastic welding, but this is not possible with fiberglass parts (Alsanius et al. 2017). Furthermore, the manufacture of aquaponic system equipment can be a significant contributor to overall environmental impact — for example, glass fiber-reinforced polyester used for the 100 msup3/sup water tank at the ICTAICP rooftop greenhouse is responsible for 10—25% of environmental impact at the manufacturing stage (Fig. 21.13). The choice of substrate for plants in an aquaponic system has a weight ramification for the structure of the host building, but also contributes to environmental impact. In a recent study done on aquaponics integrated with living walls, mineral wool, and coconut fiber performed comparably, despite one being compostable and the other being single-use (Khandaker and Kotzen 2018).
Fig. 21.12 The Plant (Chicago, Illinois, USA)
Structure and Equipment Maintenance Initial material selection for aquaponic equipment and envelope components determines the long-term upkeep of aquaponic farms. Manufacturing more durable materials such as glass or rigid plastics requires a greater initial investment of environmental resources than plastic films; however, films require replacement more frequently — for example, glass is expected to remain functional for 30+ years, whilst more conventional coated polyethylene film can only last 3—5 years before becoming too opaque (Proksch 2017). Depending on the intended lifespan of an aquaponic system envelope, it may be more advantageous to choose a material with a shorter lifespan, and a lesser manufacturing impact. ETFE film used in the Aquaponic solar greenhouse is a promising compromise between longevity and sustainability, although further research is needed. Standard aquaponic equipment consists of water tanks and piping. Piping for aquaponic systems is often manufactured from PVC, which produces a significant environmental impact in its manufacturing process but does not require replacement for up to 75 years. Some aquaponic suppliers offer bamboo as an organic alternative.
Fig. 21.13 Building section with rooftop greenhouses by Harquitectes, ICTA-ICP building (Bellaterra, Spain)
Energy In 2017, 39% of total energy consumption within the United States corresponded to the building sector (EIA). The agricultural sector accounted for approximately 1.74% of total U.S. primary energy consumption in 2014, relying heavily on indirect expenditures in the form of fertilizers and pesticides (Hitaj and Suttles 2016). Energy efficiency is a well-established field of research within both the built environment and agriculture, often defining the operational impacts of a product, building, or farm in the overall LCA (Mohareb et al. 2017). Integrating building and agricultural energy use can optimize the performance of both (SanjuanDelmás et al. 2018).
Heating Energy requirements for heating growing spaces are of particular interest in the northern climates, where extending a naturally short growing season gives building-integrated aquaponic farms a competitive edge in the market (Benis and Ferrão 2018). However, in colder climates, energy consumption by active heating systems is a significant contributor to overall environmental impact — in an assessment of conditioned growing spaces in Boston, Massachusetts, heating costs neutralized the benefits of eliminating food miles in the urban food chain (Benis et al. 2017b; Goldstein 2017). This does not hold true in Mediterranean climates, where climatic conditions are conducive to agriculture and where nearly year-round and conventional greenhouse structures can rely on passive solar heating (Nadal et al. 2017; Rothwell et al. 2016).
In both cold and warm climates, integrating controlled environment growing systems on existing rooftops can provide insulation to the host building — a farm in Montreal, Quebec reports to capture 50% of the greenhouse heating needs from the existing host structure, thereby reducing heating load (Goldstein 2017). Lighting systems can also be partially responsible for satisfying heating demand in interior vertical growing applications such as plant factories or shipping containers (Benis et al. 2017b).
Residual heat capture is another promising design strategy that can optimize the performance of both the host structure and the growing system. Post-occupancy studies of the experimental rooftop greenhouse at the ICTA-ICP in Bellaterra, Spain indicate that the integration of the building with the greenhouse delivered an equivalent carbon savings of 113.8 kg/msup2/sup/year compared to a conventional freestanding greenhouse heated with oil (Nadal et al. 2017). Without intervention from active heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) systems, the thermal mass of the host laboratory/office building raised the greenhouse temperature by 4.1C during the coldest months, enabling the cultivation of the tomato crop year-round.
Cooling In Mediterranean and tropical climates, artificial cooling is often a requirement to grow produce year-round. In a rooftop greenhouse simulation, cooling loads represented up to 55% of total farm energy demands in Singapore and in the more temperate climate of Paris, 30% (Benis et al. 2017b). Cooling energy demands are especially high in arid climates, which can benefit the most from cutting conventional transportation costs for perishable produce (Graamans et al. 2018; Ishii et al. 2016). Evaporative cooling, fog cooling, and shading are some strategies for lowering temperatures in aquaponic farms and improving farm performance in terms of yield.
Building-integrated aquaponic systems have the advantage of storing thermal mass in fish tanks to alleviate cooling as well as heating loads. In cases where this mode of passive cooling does not satisfy the cooling demand, evaporative cooling is most commonly used. The Sustainable Harvesters greenhouse produces lettuce for the Houston, Texas, USA area year-round by using a fan and pad cooling system, a subset of evaporative cooling technology. Hot air from outside the envelope first passes through a wet cellulose medium before entering the growing space. As a result, the interior air is cooler and more humid. Evaporative cooling is most effective in dry climates but requires high water use, which may be a limitation to farms in arid areas of the world.
Fog cooling is an alternative strategy. In a fog-cooled greenhouse, plants are periodically misted with water from overhead sprinklers/misters until the space reaches the desired temperature for cultivation. Fog cooling uses less water than evaporative cooling but increases the relative humidity of a growing space. If paired with the right ventilation strategy, fog cooling can be a water-saving technology particularly suited to arid regions (Ishii et al. 2016). Additionally, fog cooling decreases the rate of evapotranspiration in plants, which is critical to optimizing plant metabolism in aquaponic systems (Goddek 2017). The flagship greenhouse of Superior Fresh farms uses a computerized fog-cooling system to maintain cultivation temperatures during the hot season.
Shading devices can also contribute to lowering greenhouse temperatures. Traditionally, the seasonal lime whitewashing of greenhouses was used to reduce solar radiation levels during the hottest months (Controlled Environment Agriculture 1973). However, shading can be integrated with other building functions. A promising shading strategy is using semi-transparent photovoltaic modules to simultaneously cool the space and produce energy (Hassanien and Ming 2017). The Aquaponic solar greenhouse combines its photovoltaic array with shading functionality; it uses rotating aluminium panels as shading devices that operate as solar collectors with the help of mounted photovoltaic cells. The integrated photovoltaic system then transforms excess solar radiation into electrical energy.
Lighting The main advantage of greenhouses over indoor growing spaces is their ability to capitalize on daylight to facilitate photosynthesis. However, farms in extreme climates may find that satisfying heating or cooling loads for a transparent envelope is not financially feasible; in this case, farmers may choose to cultivate crop in indoor growing spaces with an insulated envelope (Graamans et al. 2018). Aquaponic farms that operate in indoor growing spaces rely on efficient electrical lighting to produce crops.
Many advances in contemporary farm lighting originated in Japanese plant factories, used to optimize plant yields in dense hydroponic systems by replacing sunlight with engineered light wavelengths (Kozai et al. 2015). Currently, LED lighting is the most popular choice for electrical horticultural lighting systems. They are 80% more efficient than high-intensity discharge lamps and 30% more efficient than their fluorescent counterparts (Proksch 2017). LED lighting continues to be investigated to optimize energy efficiency and crop yield (Zhang et al. 2017). Largescale greenhouses like Superior Fresh, Wisconsin, USA rely on computerized, supplemental lighting regimes to extend the photosynthesis period of its crop in northern latitudes.
Energy Generation Constrained by the same factors as all CEA, the energy management of an aquaponic farm depends on exterior climate, crop selection, the production system, and structure design (Graamans et al. 2018). Growing produce through aquaponics is not inherently sustainable if not managed properly — all of the factors above can affect energy efficiency for the better or worse (Buehler and Junge 2016). In many cases, CEA is more energy-intensive than conventional open-field agriculture; however, higher energy expenditures may be justified if the way we source energy shifts toward renewable sources and efficient strategies for heating, cooling, and lighting are incorporated into the design of the farm.
Photovoltaic (PV) power generation can play an important part in offsetting operational impacts for controlled environment aquaponics, reducing environmental strain. In an example of a high-tech greenhouse in Australia, using energy from a PV array caused a 50% reduction in lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions compared to the conventional grid scenario (Rothwell et al. 2016). Renewable energy generation can be combined with aquaponic farms, space permitting — for example, the Lucky Clays Fresh aquaponic greenhouse on a rural farm in North Carolina runs on energy generated by wind turbines and photovoltaic panels that are situated elsewhere on the owner's land parcel.
Water Water use efficiency has been often cited as a major benefit of CEA and hydroponic systems (Despommier 2013; Specht et al. 2014). Aquaponic systems are even better suited to increase water efficiency — where 1 kg of fish produced in a conventional aquaculture system requires between 2500 and 375,000 L, the same amount of fish raised in an aquaponic system requires less than 100 L (Goddek et al. 2015). Rainwater capture and greywater reuse have been proposed as two strategies to offset the watershed impacts of operating a hydroponic or aquaponic farm even further. At the existing ICTA-ICP greenhouse, 80—90% of the water needs for the production of tomatoes in an aggregate hydroponic system were covered by rainwater capture within a year of operation (Sanjuan-Delmás et al. 2018). However, the ability of rainwater capture to meet crop demand depends on the climatic context. In a study evaluating the viability of rooftop greenhouse production on existing retail parks in eight cities around the world, seven met crop self-sufficiency through rainwater capture — only Berlin did not (Sanyé-Mengual et al. 2018).
Some existing CEA facilities already reuse greywater to improve efficiency (Benke and Tomkins 2017). However, greywater reuse in an urban context is currently limited due to lacking regulatory support and currently-lacking research on the health risks of using greywater in agriculture. A pilot of greywater reuse, the Maison Productive in Montréal collects greywater from household uses to supplement its rainwater collection to irrigate gardens and a communal greenhouse for food production that nine residential units share (Thomaier et al. 2015). With further advances in policy on the treatment of greywater, building-integrated aquaponics can tap into the existing water cycle instead of relying on municipal sources.
From an architectural standpoint, water distribution in an aquaponic system is likely to present a structural challenge. Aquaponic fish tanks weigh more than hydroponic grow beds and may limit what types of structures are feasible for retrofitting an aquaponic farm. The growing medium also requires consideration — deep water culture (DWC) systems require a large and heavy volume of water, whilst nutrient film technique (NFT) systems are lightweight but expensive to manufacture (Goddek et al. 2015).
Nutrients Compared to conventional open-field farming, CEA reduces the need for fertilizers and pesticides, as the farmer can physically separate the crop from harsh external conditions (Benke and Tomkins 2017). However, due to the density of an aquaponic system, plant or fish diseases can spread quickly if a pathogen infiltrates the space. Preventative options such as the use of predator insects or tight environmental control measures such as a "buffer" entryways can avert this risk (Goddek et al. 2015).
The integration of different fish and crop nutrient needs is a challenge in singlerecirculating aquaponic systems (Alsanius et al. 2017). Generally, plants require higher nitrogen concentrations than fish can withstand and careful crop and fish selection can match nutrient requirements to optimize yields, but is still difficult to achieve. Decoupled systems (DRAPS) have been proposed to separate the aquaculture water cycle from the hydroponic one to achieve desired nutrient concentrations, but is not yet commonly applied in commercial farms (Suhl et al. 2016). Urban Organics based in St. Paul, Minnesota, USA chose to develop a DRAPS system for their second farm to optimize both crop and fish yields and avoid crop loss in case of nutrient imbalances within fish tanks. ECF Farm in Berlin, Germany, and Superior Fresh farms in Wisconsin, USA also operate decoupled systems to optimize fish and plant growth.
Alternatively, aquaponic nutrient cycles can be optimized through the introduction of an anaerobic reactor to transform solid fish waste into plant-digestible phosphorus (Goddek et al. 2016). Currently, The Plant in Chicago, USA is planning to operate an anaerobic digester which may play a part in optimizing nutrient cycles for crop growth. The mechanical system requirements for DRAPS and anaerobic digestion will influence the performance as well as the spatial layout of an aquaponic farm.
Materials Waste Management A theoretical advantage of CEA over open-field farming is the ability to control materials waste runoff, preventing leaching (Despommier 2013; Gould and Caplow 2012). A tight envelope can play a role in efficient materials waste management. One pathway of recycling organic waste matter to improve building performance is the use of plant stalks for the production of insulating biochar, although this research is in early stages (Llorach-Massana et al. 2017). Additionally, considering the incorporation of waste management components such as a filtration bed, an anaerobic digester or a heat recovery ventilator into the enclosure design at an early stage can close energy, nutrient, and water loops for the farm.
Distribution Chains Packaging has been a hotspot in various farm LCAs assessing the impact of production. It is responsible for as much as 45% of the total impact for a tomato in Bologna, Italy, and is the largest contributor to the environmental impacts of indoor hydroponic systems in Stockholm, Sweden (Molin and Martin 2018b; Orsini et al. 2017; Rothwell et al. 2016). Siting aquaponic farms close to consumers can reduce the need for packaging, storage, and transport as with other forms of urban agriculture, if local retailers and distributors collaborate with farmers (Specht et al. 2014). Unfortunately, due to consumer acceptance, most large-scale retailers currently require standard plastic packaging for aquaponic produce to be sold alongside conventional brands - — therefore, selecting a site close to a consumer market for controlled environment aquaponics does not guarantee significant changes in the overall performance of the farm.
Reduced transportation, or food-miles, is often cited in the literature as a major advantage of urban agriculture (Benke and Tomkins 2017; Despommier 2013; Sanjuan-Delmás et al. 2018). However, it is important to note that the relative contribution of shortened transportation chains varies on a case-by-case basis. In Singapore, where nearly all food has to be imported from neighboring countries, cutting transportation chains makes sense financially and in terms of environmental impact (Astee and Kishnani 2010). The same cannot be said for Spain, where the conventional supply chain of tomatoes from farm to city is already short (SanjuanDelmás et al. 2018). Cities with the longest supply chains can benefit from localized food production, but the benefits of cutting transportation must be weighed against operational and embodied impacts. In the case of Boston, the benefits of reduced transportation were entirely negated by the impact of heating and operating a greenhouse inside the city (Goldstein 2017). Despite long conventional food supply chains, transportation impacts were similarly insignificant in the bigger picture of CEA performance in Stockholm (Molin and Martin 2018a).
Consumption and Diet Aquaponic farms in cities can alter urban diets, which play a significant role in the environmental impact of food consumption (Benis and Ferrão 2017). Meat consumption via the conventional chain produces the largest share of the current environmental footprint and seeking protein alternatives has the potential for a larger impact than the widespread implementation of urban agriculture (Goldstein 2017). Since aquaponics produces fish as well as vegetables, this potential to change protein diets on a large scale should not be ignored in larger assessments of environmental performance.