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[email protected]: Introduction

2 years ago

19 min read

Aquaponics can be used as a vehicle to address a number of social issues. Many people with mental and physical health problems face social exclusion because they do not have equal access to opportunities in society, including paid employment, housing, education and leisure. The operation of an aquaponics system provides opportunities for the elements of doing (engaging in a meaningful activity), being (having self-regard and esteem), becoming (building skills and self-efficacy) and belonging (having acceptance and interpersonal connection) that are necessary in order to foster a sense of social inclusion. Aquaponics also offers an innovative form of therapeutic horticulture, a nature-based approach that can promote wellbeing for people with mental health issues. There are particular qualities of the plant-person relationship that promote people’s interaction with their environment and hence their health, functional level, and subjective wellbeing (Fieldhouse 2003; Heliker et al. 2001). Plants are seen to bestow non-discriminatory rewards on their carer without imposing the burden of an interpersonal relationship and, by responding to care or neglect, can immediately reinforce a sense of personal agency. Social networks such as those provided by community aquaponics initiatives can act as buffers to stressors, provide a structure for acquiring skills, and validate and enhance an individual’s sense of self-worth (Cohen & Wills 1985). Aquaponics can also be used to improve the wellbeing of elderly citizens, by facilitating various cognitive functions through sensory stimulation, and by enhancing their balance and mobility, thereby helping to prevent falls. Aquaponics can be used to promote scientific literacy by providing a useful tool for teaching the natural sciences at all levels, from primary through to tertiary education. It provides multiple ways of enriching classes in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) (Brown et al. 2011), and can also be used for teaching subjects such as business and economics, and for addressing issues like sustainable development, environmental science, agriculture, food systems, and health. And aquaponics can be used to integrate livelihood strategies to secure food and small incomes for landless and poor households (Pantanella et al. 2010). Domestic production of food, access to markets, and the acquisition of skills are invaluable tools for securing the empowerment and emancipation of women in developing countries, and aquaponics can provide the foundation for fair and sustainable socio-economic growth.

Food security

Food security exists when all people at all times have physical, social, and economic access to sufficient, safe, and nutritious food that meets their dietary needs and food preferences and enables them to live an active and healthy life (FAO Policy Brief). The four pillars of food security are: food availability, access to food, utilization, and stability. Food availability is achieved when nutritious food is available at all times for people to access, while food accessibility is achieved when people at all times have the economic ability to obtain nutritious food according to their dietary preferences. Food utilization is achieved when all food consumed is absorbed and utilized by the body to make a healthy active life possible, and food stability is achieved when all of the other pillars have been achieved.

Urban and peri-urban agriculture are increasingly recognised as a means by which cities can move away from current inequitable and resource-dependent food systems, reduce their ecological footprint, and increase their liveability (Malano et al. 2014). On account of being almost completely dependent on produce imported from other regions, urban consumers are particularly vulnerable to food insecurity. For those of low socio-economic status, this dependence means that any fluctuation in food prices translates into limited purchasing power, increased food insecurity, and compromised dietary options.

Assuring food security in the twenty-first century within sustainable planetary boundaries (Rockström et al. 2009) will require a multi-faceted intensification of food production (Godfray et al. 2010) decoupled from unsustainable resource use. Aquaponics may be part of the solution. Nutrition, which is integral to the concept of food security, is improved by incorporating fish and fresh vegetables in the diet. Fish provides a significant source of protein and vitamins and, even when consumed in small quantities, can improve dietary quality by contributing essential amino acids which are often missing or underrepresented in vegetable-based diets. In addition, fish oils are a source of omega three fatty acids that are crucial for normal brain development in unborn babies and infants.

Various initiatives around the world illustrate how aquaponics is starting to be used in efforts to enhance food security. Byspokes Community Interest Company, a UK-based social enterprise, has set up a pilot aquaponics system and training programme at the Al-Basma Centre in Beit Sahour, Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT), a region where availability of space for food production is a serious problem, particularly in the urban areas and refugee camps. Even in agricultural areas, land access is being lost through Israeli controls and through effective annexation by the Israeli ‘Security Fence’. 40% of the population in the OPT (25% in the West Bank) are classed as ‘chronically food insecure’, and unemployment stands at around 25%, with highs of 80% in some refugee camps. From an economic viewpoint the project demonstrated that an aquaponics system could contribute significantly to household incomes and so help lift families out of poverty, while also providing a range of fresh vegetables and fish to families least able to afford such high quality food.

Since 2010 the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) has been implementing an emergency food production support project for poor families in the Gaza Strip, where 11 years of Israeli sea, land and air blockade, combined with low rainfall resulting in drought, have severely compromised the possibilities for domestic food production in one of the most densely populated areas of the world. With so many restrictions, fresh vegetables are expensive and hard to find. 97% of the Gaza Strip population are urban or camp dwellers, and therefore do not have access to land. Poverty affects 53% of the population, and 39% of families headed by women are food insecure. Enabling families to produce their own affordable fresh food is therefore a highly appropriate and effective response to the current situation. Food insecure female-headed households living in urban areas were given rooftop aquaponics units, and other units were installed in educational and community establishments. Having an aquaponics unit on their roof means that the women can simultaneously improve their household food security and income while still taking care of their children and homes. All of the beneficiaries have increased their household food consumption as a result.

Through its Adaptive Agriculture Program, INMED Partnerships for Children is dedicated to establishing sustainable food programs that improve food security, conserve natural resources, promote strategies for adapting to climate change, and provide opportunities for income generation in developing countries. INMED has developed a simple and affordable aquaponics system for small- scale farmers, schools, government institutions and home gardeners using easily accessible off-the- shelf local materials. Over the past decade, INMED has established a highly successful Adaptive Aquaculture and Aquaponics Program in South Africa, Jamaica and Peru. In South Africa INMED focuses on achieving food security and sustainable income generation by strengthening local capacity to understand and address climate change, while resolving interrelated issues of environmental degradation, increasing water scarcity, and poverty. It offers business-planning links to markets and assistance with applications for development grants and loans to expand and growing enterprises. At the core of this far-reaching vision, in addition to intensive traditional cultivation, is aquaponics. Several projects have been successfully implemented in different provinces in the country. An aquaponics system was installed at the Thabelo Christian Association for the Disabled in a remote area of the Venda region in Limpopo province. Because INMED’s system requires no heavy labour or complex mechanical systems, it is ideal for individuals with disabilities and those unable to perform traditional farming activities. Since the installation, the co-op has increased its revenue by more than 400%. Co-op members receive stable monthly salaries and have invested in breeding animals for additional revenue. Communities that have embraced this new way of farming have strengthened their ability to ensure food security and to provide new and adaptive opportunities for income generation.

Another good example of community upliftment in South Africa is Eden Aquaponics. Eden Aquaponics (Pty) Ltd is the brainchild of Jack Probart who, with the realisation that food security is fast becoming just as vital as a healthy economy, had the vision of developing a commercial business with a community focus. Using aquaponics to produce fish and vegetables in the Eden area of the Garden Route in the Western Cape, Eden Aquaponics supplies fish for consumption, as well as fingerlings for fish farming, and grows a variety of organic vegetables for distribution to the local farmers’ markets, restaurants and retailers. The Community Upliftment division manufactures and installs customised commercial systems of various sizes including DIY backyard aquaponics equipment, and supplies seedlings and fingerlings. They also teach less fortunate communities to become self-sufficient in growing, marketing, and selling their produce, thereby enabling previously unemployed people to develop skills, self-confidence, self-esteem, and the ability to provide for themselves.

Food insecurity is not only pertinent to the developing world. In Seville, Spain, social enterprise Asociacíon Verdes del Sur has set up an aquaponics greenhouse in the grounds of a school in Polígono Sur, the most socially deprived part of the city, which is characterised by long-term unemployment and a high incidence of drug-related crime. The aquaponics unit is used as part of an environmental education programme for local residents, including teaching the benefits of eating locally grown fresh food, and developing skills for the unemployed. A prototype domestic unit has also been set up in the house of one of the local residents.


Figure 1: Aquaponics facilities in Polígono Sur – anticlockwise from top left: the aquaponics greenhouse at the school; Soledad with a frozen tilapia raised in her domestic unit; tomatoes and an aubergine saved for their seeds; the domestic aquaponics unit (Photographs: Sarah Milliken).

Food deserts

Healthy food environments are imperative for public health. Access to supermarkets that offer wholesome food products at low prices varies across space, and is correlated with socioeconomic status and ethnicity. Areas characterized by poor access to fresh fruit, vegetables, and other healthy foods at affordable prices are known as ‘food deserts’ (Rex & Blair 2003). The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) designates food deserts based on characteristics of low income, race/ethnicity, long distance to a grocery store, lack of access to fresh affordable food, and dependence on public transportation. The residents of food deserts rely on fast food, convenience stores, petrol stations and food banks for the majority of their food staples. Due to these factors, many people face significant challenges in terms of food security and access, resulting in dramatic increases in related health issues, in particular obesity. Food deserts are especially problematic for those on low incomes, and for vulnerable individuals such as those with a disability which limits their ability to travel. Not having access to a car in a food desert can limit an individual’s ability to reach food stores offering fresh produce at affordable prices.

Empirical evidence for food deserts in the US and also in UK is extensive (Walker et al. 2010). Food deserts tend to have smaller populations, higher rates of abandoned or vacant homes, and residents who have lower levels of education, lower incomes, and higher unemployment (Dutko et al. 2012). In 2017 15 million US households (11.8%) were classified as being food insecure, which means that they had difficulty at some time during the year in providing enough food for all household members due to a lack of resources. More than one third of these households (5.8 million) were classified as having very low food security, which means that the food intake of some household members was reduced and normal eating patterns were disrupted at times during the year due to limited resources. Rates of food insecurity were higher than the national average in households with incomes near or below the poverty line, in single parent households, among people living alone, in black and Hispanic households, and in the major cities (Coleman-Jensen et al. 2018).

Discussion of food deserts in the UK was particularly prominent in the 1990s, amid a wider debate about poverty and deprivation. This discussion was concentrated on relatively economically deprived areas such as social housing estates, with many hypothesising that supermarkets might underserve such areas, given the lower profits that could be realised from basing a store in an area where residents’ incomes are relatively low. Residents without cars, unable to reach out-of-town supermarkets, depend on the corner shop where prices are high, products are processed, and fresh fruit and vegetables are of poor quality or non-existent (Wrigley 1998). Arguably the rise of online grocery deliveries may limit the extent to which food deserts are a significant problem, although it is unclear whether online deliveries are used equally across society. 10.2 million people in the UK (16% of the population) live in food deserts, of which 1.2 million live in economically deprived areas. The food deserts are spread out across the country, and cover both rural and urban areas. However, about three quarters (76%) of food deserts in England and Wales are in urban areas. Food deserts are very much a local problem rather than a nationwide or even town/citywide problem, which suggests that local, rather than nationwide, policy interventions are needed to tackle the problem (Corfe 2018).

Implemented either as professional urban agriculture or as community farming, aquaponics could potentially help to alleviate the food deserts, especially in urban areas where vacant buildings and rooftops provide opportunities for creating inner city growing spaces. However, this will require municipal governments to make changes to existing land use legislation in order to facilitate urban agriculture and make access to healthy foods and fresh produce easier for vulnerable populations (Tomlinson 2017).

Food sovereignty

The food sovereignty movement is a global alliance of farmers, growers, consumers and activists. It asserts that people must reclaim their power in the food system by rebuilding the relationships between people and the land, and between food providers and those who eat. Food sovereignty is the right of peoples to healthy and culturally appropriate food produced through ecologically sound and sustainable methods, and their right to define their own food and agriculture systems. It puts the aspirations and needs of those who produce, distribute and consume food at the heart of food systems and policies, rather than the demands of markets and corporations. Food sovereignty therefore goes well beyond ensuring that people have enough food to meet their physical needs.

If implemented as a programme to be managed by local people, community-based aquaponics enterprises offer a new model for blending local agency with scientific innovation to address food sovereignty, by re-engaging and giving communities more control over their food production and distribution. Bringing food production closer to where people live and helping them to engage with different agricultural approaches could encourage them to make positive changes to their diets, thereby contributing to food security. Access to food production can also be seen as a way of encouraging people to waste less food. A survey carried out in the UK (Vanson & Georgieva 2016) found a high level of social acceptance of aquaponics as an efficient, self-sufficient and clean method of urban food production. However, these findings contradict those from a survey carried out in Berlin, Germany (Specht et al. 2016), which found a comparatively low social acceptance of aquaponics compared with more low-tech forms of urban agriculture, such as rooftop gardening, though this might be explained by a general lack of knowledge about that type of production system.

Alternative food networks

Alternative food networks (AFNs) have emerged as part of the food sovereignty movement (Maye & Kirwan 2010). AFNs represent concrete efforts to respatialize and resocialize food production, distribution and consumption. AFNs can be defined as the systems or channels of food production, distribution and consumption which are built upon the re-connection or close communication between producer, produce and consumer, and which are committed to the social, economic and environmental dimensions of sustainable food production, distribution and consumption. AFNs are typically characterised by:

  1. Shorter distances between producers and consumers. By growing food in proximity to where people buy and eat their food, AFNs minimize transport distances and fuel consumption, and bypass middlemen in the distribution chain. This form of direct marketing allows farmers to capture and keep more profit, and it conserves fossil fuel both in production and transport. Direct marketing brings farmers and eaters face-to-face, thereby developing the bonds of trust and cooperation.

  2. Small farm size and scale and organic farming methods, which are contrasted with large scale, conventional agribusiness. The majority of farms in AFNs are small both in terms of acreage (under 50 acres) and in terms of revenue. They rely upon household labour, apprentices and interns and, in some cases, upon seasonal farm workers. Larger farms may employ year round workers, and may enable their owners to earn their livelihoods solely through farming. Alternative agriculture also stresses environmentally conscious food cultivation, and farmers in AFNs practice organic cultivation techniques, although their food may not be formally certified as such.

  3. The distribution of food through food cooperatives, farmers markets, Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) food box delivery services, and local food-to-school linkages. Rather than contracting their food sales with brokers, wholesalers, corporations, processors, or supermarkets, farmers in AFNs adopt on-farm vertically integrated structures that involve the farm and the farm household directly in distribution and retail activities that occur near the farm.

AFNs seek to localize food systems and to encourage contact between food producers and consumers, seeking to respatialize food systems perceived to have become ‘placeless’. AFNs are therefore sometimes called ‘local food networks’ (LFNs). The ‘localisation’ of food systems is seen as standing in a stark contrast to the mainstream agro-industrial and global food system characterised by ‘food from nowhere’. The geography of local food systems, however, is only one key aspect. Apart from being rooted in a place, LFNs aim to be economically viable for farmers and consumers, use ecologically sound production and distribution practices, and enhance social equity and democracy for all members of the community.

Aquaponics fits well with the concept of Alternative Food Networks/Local Food Networks. It is an environmentally conscious method of food production that consumes less water than conventional crop production methods, and produces virtually no waste: the sludge can be easily composted and converted into valuable products. As a closed-loop system, the only input required for an aquaponics farm are the water and the food that feeds the fish, and therefore, unlike most traditional agricultural practices, it requires no or significantly reduced fertilizer or chemical-based pesticides in order to facilitate plant growth. This implies that plants harvested from an aquaponic system are grown in a system that is equivalent to organic production, although in the EU the produce cannot be certified as such, since the certification scheme currently only relates to soil grown crops.

Conventional aquaculture and agriculture can involve long value chains. The system boundaries are the fishery and greenhouse or field at one end, and the consumer at the other. Between the two are processing, retail, wholesale, and transportation, each of which has associated environmental, social, and economic impacts. The development of short value chains by urban aquaponics producers – e.g. selling directly to consumers, restaurants or supermarkets – can reduce these impacts.

The GrowHaus in Colorado is a social enterprise which focuses on healthy, equitable and resident- driven community food production. 97% of the food consumed in Colorado is produced out of state, and the neighbourhood where the GrowHaus is located has been designated a food desert. Initially in partnership with Colorado Aquaponics, and since 2016 independently, the GrowHaus operates a 297 square metre aquaponics farm and the produce is sold through a weekly farm fresh food basket programme at a price comparable to Walmart, as well as to restaurants, with a portion donated to the local community. To help the transition to healthier eating, the GrowHaus also organises free training and community events focused around food.

The Well Community Allotment Group (Crookes Community Farm) is social enterprise run by volunteers in Sheffield, UK, that is on a mission to connect the local community with their food by actively involving them in its production, and by educating them about the benefits of local food. In

2018 the association was awarded an Aviva Community Fund Award in order to build an aquaponics unit which will be used to educate individuals, schools, youth groups and other organisations.

Copyright © Partners of the [email protected] Project. [email protected] is an Erasmus+ Strategic Partnership in Higher Education (2017-2020) led by the University of Greenwich, in collaboration with the Zurich University of Applied Sciences (Switzerland), the Technical University of Madrid (Spain), the University of Ljubljana and the Biotechnical Centre Naklo (Slovenia).

Please see the table of contents for more topics.

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