Modern aquaponics systems allow for a very high level and control of food safety, optimal resource rationalisation and maintenance of desirable levels of environmental sustainability.
The world’s population is growing, and as a result the need for food and other resources is increasing. Although population growth in Europe is expected to be relatively stable over the next couple of decades, it is vital that the European regions evolve from its current dependence on imported food supplies to a situation of self-sufficiency in food production. It should be noted that in non-EU exporting nations that are traditional suppliers to Europe, it is inevitable that the predicted growth in population will result in the depletion of surplus productive capacities, with local consumers consuming the bulk of locally produced food resources.
Currently, there is a reasonable equilibrium in the European Union’s balance of trade for all agricultural products.1 However in regards to vegetables, there has been a progressive deterioration of the EU balance of trade, with values of exports stabilising and those of imports tending to grow.2 As regards to seafood, the EU balance of trade is heavily in deficit. The EU exports of seafood account for less than 25% of value of imports.
The EU is the world’s leading importer of seafood with over two thirds of the volume of fish consumed internally originating from outside the bloc.3 Without a radical internal shift in production capacity, future years will dictate a profound internal shortage of these food products. The availability of supply will be determined by the ability to keep up with rampant price growth as non-EU foreign suppliers will have less product available for export (a result of their internal markets consuming more). Consequently, increasing the productive capacities of agriculture and fisheries are fundamental and are urgent strategies for European economic and social development. Conversely, it has also been established that the global food production system is responsible for 21 to 37% of global greenhouse gases.4 This includes food production activities, handling and transport. Production and exploitation of food resources also contributes substantially to deforestation, biodiversity loss, declining water and ecosystem quality. Thus, it is crucial to take all these factors into account when developing growth strategies within EU fisheries, CAP and blue economy policies.
The current production environment
In recent decades, technological developments have significantly increased the efficiency of agricultural techniques. However, agriculture has predominantly maintained a linear format – i.e. the use of environmentally unfriendly practices giving rise to negative effects on ecosystems (such as excessive waste of water, resource contamination, pesticide use, over-dependency on monoculture, habitat loss and fragmentation). Soil depletion and loss of biodiversity, as well as long-distance food transport which results in greater conservation requirements and loss of freshness, are also a result of this current production environment.
This linear trajectory has also been prominent in fisheries with over-exploitation of fishery stocks and resources giving rise to an increasing threat of extinction of the whole of a species in coming decades. Aquaculture is still excessively dependent on fishmeal which puts even more strain on wild marine resources. Conventional aquaculture has an enormous impact on aquatic ecosystems, leading to a profound degradation of water resource quality through either a greater increase of nitrogen and phosphate compounds in water, or by the intensive use of chemicals and antibiotics which can have an extremely harmful impact on the environment. As a result, it is imperative to place technology, not only at the service of increasing intensive food production (given the move towards policies ensuring total national food security) but also to align it with the principles of the circular economy.
Aquaponics: a highly sustainable way of producing food
Aquaponics is a food production technique that combines recirculating aquaculture systems (RAS) with hydroponics within the same closed water circuit. Fish produce nitrogen compounds that are converted by microorganisms into natural fertiliser. Nutrient-rich water from the fish tanks is then biologically filtered, cleaned through filtration systems and then piped into and through the grow beds, fertilising the crops, and therefore eliminating the need for synthetic fertilisers. The water then returns to the fish tanks. This natural biological process reuses all resources, making wastewater virtually non-existent.
There are numerous reasons why aquaponic farming is gaining in popularity, particularly in cities and regions hard hit by climate change. Benefits include:
- The ability to farm in urban and arid environments;
- Year-round crop production;
- Crop yields up to 12 times more than traditional farming (resulting in a much smaller footprint being required for production of certain types and volumes);
- Resilience to flooding and drought;
- No need for costly synthetic fertilisers or pesticides;
- Up to 95% less water consumption than conventional farming without any runoff or other environmental contamination; and
- The ability to reduce the impact of over-fishing of wild and indigenous fish stocks.
These advantages make aquaponics a highly sustainable way of producing food, with little to no environmental impacts as with conventional agriculture and aquaculture.
After Dr James Rakocy introduced modern large-scale and commercial aquaponics to the science community during the mid-90’s, the popularity of aquaponics started increasing globally especially in the USA and Australia. However, over subsequent years many hundreds of startups that emerged in these countries have failed. This development revealed a clear correlation with the initial phases of the Gartner Hype Cycle for Emerging Technologies. Evidence now shows that the majority of these startups and investments are motivated by emotional and non-rational reasons, neglecting good business practices such as solid business plans, conducting consumer market and price research. Moreover, most of the aquaponic techniques used were inadequate or unproductive, lacking in deep technical knowledge, and missing the relevant link points between RAS technology and plant cultivation.
New aquaponics technologies
Unfortunately, and perhaps unfairly, these events led to delays in the global commercial development and adoption of aquaponics. Shortly thereafter, aquaponics became to be seen as a mere solution for application as a sustainable and resource-less food productive technique for developing nations, especially in regard to water and energy usage. In this context, although quite sustainable, aquaponics has only been seen in a rudimentary context and appreciated as a less sophisticated productive system. It has tended to be seen as a semi-intensive production technology adapted to countries and regions with less resources. This, in turn, has led to this technique being ignored as a key technology that is relevant to the major policy goals for European internal investment.
Over recent years, deeper knowledge, improved techniques, as well as the development and application of new technologies for aquaponics, have made it possible to significantly increase productivity as well as economic and environmental sustainability. Combining recent technologies used in RAS with a modular design based on hydraulic engineering, online monitoring and control systems associated with flow management, dissolved oxygen, conductivity and other parameters, solid waste management and aerobic biodigestion, has enabled Aquaponics Iberia to develop production systems that allow for much higher productivity with lower inputs (especially in terms of water, energy consumption and, fundamentally, maintenance requirements). The latter has been a key factor that deeply affected the development and implementation of aquaponic projects. Time consuming interventions in the management of solid waste and system cleaning often implied that there were productivity problems and gave rise to negative implications for the health and quality of the food being produced (such as greens, vegetables and fish).
New aquaponics technologies already guarantee intensive productivity with real-time monitoring and control of events. Modern aquaponics systems allow for a very high level and control of food safety, optimal resource rationalisation and maintenance of desirable levels of environmental sustainability, both in terms of emissions and of waste, residues and contaminants. This allows a high quality of food product, without the recurrence of the problems arising from the use of pesticides and chemicals as in conventional systems. The concept is ideally applicable in urban areas where it can minimise resources needed for the transport of food and substantially reduce gas emissions.
Shaping policies and demolishing current barriers
In addition to the technology and new production system designs that Aquaponics Iberia has developed, the company believes that to ensure rapid and effective growth of aquaculture production in Europe, priority should be given to selecting omnivorous or herbivorous fish species which require much less input both in economic costs and ecosystem resources. In practice, as the EU imports huge quantities of these frozen species, why not produce and deliver these fresh species locally, while guaranteeing the high standards of quality and sustainability that new aquaponics technologies can easily satisfy? In the future, by gaining greater efficiency in applying technology and sustainability practices to the mass production of algae-based feeds and insects, as well as ensuring safe and effective substitutes for fishmeal (animal protein), we will be able to add carnivorous fish species to the equation, while ensuring economic and environmental sustainability.
Aquaponics is now proving to be a successful and sustainable way to produce and supply fresh food to European cities and a way to achieve food sovereignty. Over coming years, we should see great changes. Fish n’ Greens is an example of what we should expect to see as a reality in some European cities.
A transformation to this reality should be appropriated and enabled by European policy makers and local governments through shaping policies and demolishing current barriers. In this context, the current impossibility in certifying aquaponic plant products as ‘organic’ is an example of an unfair institutionalised trade barrier to the development of aquaponics in Europe. At this level, the USA is one step ahead of Europe. Policy change must become inevitable if we want a greater urgency in developing a self-sustaining food system for EU nations.
- Rabobank RaboResearch