Aquaponics Beyond The Hype: Commercial Challenges In Europe

In recent years, aquaponics has been receiving increased interest globally as a commercial food production technology and aquaponics start-up companies have been formed in most European countries. Between 2014 and 2018, the European-funded COST Action FA1305 “The EU Aquaponics Hub-Realising Sustainable Integrated Fish and Vegetable Production for the EU” created a strong network of researchers and entrepreneurs.

Abstract

However, surveys show that aquaponic production in Europe is still very limited, and very few companies are economically viable. In order to obtain insights into the barriers to the early development of commercial aquaponics, two surveys were carried out—one in Europe, which included France, and one in France alone, with a different protocol. Henceforth, for simplicity, the former will be referred to as Europe and the latter as France.

The results reveal that the development of commercial aquaponics has hit the level of “disillusionment”, caused by numerous challenges facing commercial food production. As the understanding of the processes involved in aquaponics is increasing, it will be very interesting to follow the developments in the field over the coming years in order to ascertain whether aquaponics will follow the phases outlined by the “Gartner’s Hype Cycle” and thus proceed to become an established technology, or whether it will remain a “one-hit wonder” and disappear in the “Trough of Disillusionment”.

Introduction

Adopting Commercial Aquaponics: Mere Hype or Hype Cycle?

Modern aquaponics emerged simultaneously with recirculating aquaculture technology in the 1970s [1,2]. Many backyard systems and farms producing both fish and vegetables have emerged in the last decade in Australia and the United States [3]. At the same time, the first commercial farms started operation too [4].

The first wave of research on economic aspects of aquaponics started in the USA. It focused on the evaluation and development of specific, mostly research institutes-led case studies with a very optimistic outlook for the future [5,6,7]. Similarly, the first marketing reports were highly favorable, predicting the growth of the industry to $906.9 m by 2021 [8].

In Europe, aquaponics has developed at a slower rate, largely within research institutes and to a large extent with public funding [9]. Aquaponic systems of different sizes, designs, and purposes have been constructed in most European countries [10,11,12]. These prototypes range from classroom to backyard farm systems and to a few full-scale farms.

However, only very few of them reach a production area of more than 100 square meters [12]. With increased research and development in the field in recent years, the trend has been toward larger and more technically evolved systems, although the largest ones are still very small compared to conventional aquaculture and horticulture farms.

From 2014–2018, the development of aquaponics in Europe was further stimulated by the European-funded COST Action FA1305 “the EU Aquaponics Hub” [13], forming a network linking research and small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) across Europe. Aquaponics reached the interest of European policymakers, and the European Parliament Research Services elected aquaponics as one of the “ten technologies which could change our lives” [14].

Moreover, several European cities started looking for sustainable methods and ideas for urban farming, and are increasingly interested in aquaponics as a solution, e.g., the Climate-KIC (2019) competition on Urban Food from Residual Heat and the Reinventing Cities Competition C40 (2018), to drive carbon neutral and resilient urban regeneration.

Recent research in the USA [3,15] revealed a more critical state of the industry than previously envisaged. The USA census of 2012 reported 71 aquaponic farms, which represented 2% of all aquaculture farms [15]. Of these, only 11% had sales of $50,000 or more, compared to 60% of pond-based aquaculture operations that had sales of $50,000 or more.

Love et al. [3] surveyed mainly US-based participants (n = 257), who, in the previous 12 months, had sold aquaponics-related food or non-food products and services. The results showed that the average size of the production site was very low, compared to traditional hydroponic and aquaculture farms.

Whilst the survey of Love et al. [3] focused on Australia and the United States, Villarroel et al. [11] performed a similar survey focusing on Europe. Of 68 participants, 51% were universities or vocational schools, followed by commercial (19%), and non-profit organizations (15%). Thorarinsdottir et al. [12] identified 10 pilot aquaponic systems in Europe, approximately half of which were at the stage of setting up the first systems for commercial production.

Villarroel et al. [11] estimated that there were about 20 commercial aquaponic enterprises in Europe. Three years later, Villarroel [16] identified 52 research organizations (universities, vocational schools, research institutes) and 45 commercial enterprises in Europe working on aquaponics. The latter offers a range of services—from large-scale food production, developing IT support, selling aquarium-sized systems, to education and consultancy.

In 2016, as a spin-off from the COST FA1305, the Association of Commercial Aquaponics Companies [17] was founded, currently involving 30 companies from 14 European countries, only about a third of which focuses on food production. Others offer mostly aquaponics-related services such as engineering and consulting.

We hypothesize that the development of aquaponics might be following the so-called “Gartner’s Hype Cycle” of innovation adoption, a combination of two theories on innovation adoption: Hype Curve and Technology S-Curves [18]. Gartner’s Hype Cycle is one of the most prominent and influential consultant models for advising large companies on their technology strategy [18].

Gartner’s Hype Cycle, introduced in 1995, is a theory of how innovations are adopted. It claims that emerging technology progresses from overenthusiasm (hype) through a period of disillusionment to an eventual understanding of the technology’s relevance and role in a market or domain.

According to this theory, the first part of the hype curve is driven by “vacuous hype”—mainly by the media, which speculates on the technology’s prospects. The second part of the hype curve is supposed to be driven by performance gains and adoption growth [18,19] (Figure 1).

As Steinert & Leifert [18] warn, the analysis of Gartner’s life cycle needs to consider rigorous methodology, which was not the focus of the current research but will have to be left for future research. One of the problems with Gartner’s Hype Cycle is that it is not quite clear how to measure “hype”.

One possibility was suggested by Junge et al. [20], where the hype ratio was defined as an indicator of the popularity of a subject in the public media in comparison with academic circles and calculated as search results in Google divided by search results in Google Scholar at a certain point in time.

Another possibility is to consult the Google Trend analysis (Figure 2), which shows that from 2004 on, at least in the English-speaking world, the term “aquaponics” reached the highest level of interest in 2012 and then showed a “trough of disillusionment” that currently seems to be continuing downwards.

Optimists may argue that the development of aquaponics will progress in the future to follow Gartner’s Hype Cycle towards a “slope of enlightenment” and establish itself as mature technology. As Linden & Fenn [19] point out, the important lesson from Gartner’s Hype Cycle theory is twofold.

First, enterprises should not invest in technologies just because the technologies are being hyped, and second, enterprises also should not ignore technologies just because the technologies are not currently living up to early, inflated expectations. Pessimists, however, may argue that aquaponics in the future will not follow the “hype cycle” development, but was merely “vacuous hype”, with small chances of further development.

An important difficulty of analyzing the aquaponics adoption innovation cycle is its nature as a long-term process. Only after the cycle has been fully carried out can it be analyzed. But before that, multiple “snapshot” investigations that show the state of the art at the given point in time need to be collected. If we have witnessed or are indeed still witnessing a period of hype in aquaponics, it is important to learn what the “inflated expectations”, as termed in Gartner’s Hype Cycle, were. Turnšek et al. [22] refer to so-called “myths” of aquaponics.

These are statements about extreme profitability of aquaponics based on untested claims of the economic superiority of aquaponics in terms of output, growth time, and diversification possibilities in a commercial setting, such as “Aquaponics uses 90% less land and water than agriculture but has the potential to generate 3 to 4 times more food than the latter”. As Turnšek et al. [22] point out, statements like these are an exaggeration since they lack a clear reference unit of comparison.

Although the recent surveys provided information on the number, type, and technological aspects of aquaponic commercial facilities [3,4,11,23], little is currently known about the state of attitudes towards aquaponics and expectations from aquaponics.

Indications exist that it is primarily the promise of sustainability of aquaponics that attracts the early adopters of commercial aquaponics. In a survey conducted by Villarroel et al. [11], most respondents agreed or strongly agreed that aquaponics improves the sustainability of food production (96%) and decreases the effects of climate change (68% agreed or strongly agreed).

Yet little is known about what “inflated expectations” the early adopters have with respect to the current state and the future of aquaponics. Similarly, there is a dearth of information about the recruitment rate from the pool of “enthusiasts” to the actual start-up of commercial aquaponics. This study fills this gap in research.

Purpose of Our Study

The purpose of the study was to quantify the experience and expectations of aquaponics entrepreneurs and to evaluate the status, obstacles, and expected future development of the commercialization of aquaponics in Europe. The objective was to contact the early adopters of commercial aquaponics, either individuals or organizations, in order to ascertain the status of their plans after the initial years of planning an aquaponics business. Earlier studies on commercial aquaponics include information only on participants who have made the necessary steps in the process from initial enthusiasm to project realization [3,11,12].

The aim was to ascertain the initial motivation of early adopters, their main sources of information, reasons to either continue or abandon their start-up plans, what obstacles they encountered, what they need to facilitate their endeavors, and what are their plans for the future.

Two surveys were carried out, one in France, and one in Europe, focusing on the start-up of aquaponics businesses and the successes and difficulties that they encounter.

The results could support start-up candidates and inform them about the difficulties they might encounter. Moreover, they could also assist policymakers by informing their actions regarding aquaponic entrepreneurship. Finally, the results provide an important snapshot of the European aquaponics within its long-term process of adoption.

“Inflated” Perceptions and Optimism for the Future

The European survey attempted to ascertain the level to which the participants agreed with highly positive, “inflated” perceptions of the current state of aquaponics (Table 4). On a scale from 1 to 5 on how strongly the participants agree with these “inflated” statements, the mean was in two cases well above 3, meaning more participants agreed with the statements:

“Lower cultivation costs in aquaponics with substantially higher yields equals more net returns.” (mean = 3.4), and “Aquaponics has all the great points of traditional gardening, without all the back-breaking toil necessary to bring in a great harvest” (mean = 3.3).

In the case of the statement: “Aquaponic produce grows in half the time of that produced using conventional means”, the mean was just below 3. We can conclude therefore that the participants had high opinions of what aquaponics is and what it can achieve, and that this is consistent with “inflated” expectations in terms of the Gartner’s Hype Cycle.

Most participants, however, agreed that aquaponics has an important role to play in the future and thus showed very high hopes for its future. This may indicate that if aquaponics development does follow Gartner’s Life Cycle, it has not yet hit the “trough of disillusionment” amongst its early adopters in Europe.

Challenges Encountered

Aquaponics being a rather novel technology, the industry is barely beyond the research and development stage and the early adopters necessarily have to go through the phase of trial and error, making it a highly risky endeavor. Aquaponics incorporates all the risks of both aquaculture and hydroponics [18]. It is thus not surprising that the early adopters face income losses, due for example to fish or plant diseases or pests, or system malfunctions [7].

The current literature on the commercialization of aquaponics identifies several areas of challenges for aquaponics on a commercial scale: technical, socio-ecological, and economic [22,23,25,26]. Regarding technological challenges, the main issues faced by entrepreneurs are system complexity, caused by joining two very different food production technologies, the need for further research to optimize production conditions, and the lack of large-scale units to demonstrate the potential, subsequently resulting in the challenge to convince investors and other potential sources of finance.

Once the “trial and error” phase in the production has been negotiated, the most important challenge for commercial aquaponics producers seems to be their size, since most are very small and cannot be expected to compete with large-scale competition [22,23,25,26,27,28,29].

The currently small average size of aquaponics farms is due to the high initial investment required coupled with the novelty of the technology [22]. Because investors are reluctant to invest several Mio EUR in large-scale farms, small-scale pilot facilities are expected to provide twofold proof-of-concept: technological and commercial. This leads to a “chicken versus egg” dilemma: large-scale farms are not built because investors require comprehensive proof of concept, and the small-scale farms are not able to provide this, because they are simply too small.

To become commercially viable, businesses need to either scale up to be competitive with conventional production or to develop additional innovative business models, such as an expanded product range, tourism, consulting, and education.

The current research shows that aquaponics farms rely on other forms of income. Only 37% of 257 participants in Love et al. [3] study were commercial producers who gained their revenue from selling fish and/or plants. Thirty-six percent of respondents combined the sales of products with aquaponic-related material or services, such as the sale of supplies and equipment, consulting fees for design or construction, and fees associated with workshops, classes, public speaking, or agro-tourism. Almost one-third (27%) of responders sold aquaponic-related materials or services and no produce at all.

Aquaponics in Europe is still to a large extent based on research-directed attempts. Thirty-two percent of European participants are dealing with an aquaponics project without having to create a revenue stream, while such a category does not exist in the French sample. In both samples, only about one-fifth of the participants are involved in an aquaponics activity that generates revenue.

Compared to 257 (100% of the sample since this was the prerequisite for inclusion) in the USA [3], this is a very low number, illustrating the much slower development of aquaponics in Europe. The fact that commercial aquaponics in Europe is very limited is supported by other studies [11,12].

Nineteen percent of participants in the European sample and 44% in the French sample are still planning their project, which confirms the findings that in France, the aquaponics adoption has been slower than in the rest of Europe.

Unlike other studies, the current study aimed to include the early aquaponics enthusiasts in their process of deciding their plans regarding aquaponics. Nineteen percent of European and 35% of French respondents have completely abandoned the aquaponics project. Of these, most said that they had abandoned their plans completely. The reasons for abandonment could be grouped into three categories:

  • difficulties with securing initial investment
  • difficulties in securing a viable business model
  • personal reasons, such as moving and family reasons

The main difficulties encountered by the European enthusiasts were connected to investment and operation costs, and administrative obstacles, followed by technical issues such as installations, and fish and plants disease (Figure 4).

Surprisingly, resources (water and energy) did not play a central role as one would expect, especially when considering their role in starting aquaponics (Table 1). Marketing and sales were not (yet?) an issue. This could be due to the limited production quantities in small-scale systems connected to limited sales of products, all characteristics of a niche market.

Conclusions

Aquaponics has recently been receiving increased interest from researchers, entrepreneurs, and policymakers. Aquaponics research has increased exponentially since 2012; strong international interdisciplinary collaboration networks have been established, resulting in stronger SMEs and larger aquaponics production units being implemented.

Although Europe has been lagging behind the USA in the number of large-scale commercial aquaponics projects, pilot aquaponics systems have been built in most, if not all European countries. However, these are mainly small-scale research units and very few aquaponics systems reach the large scale required to become economically viable.

The driving force for the development of commercial aquaponics seems to originate predominantly from the aquaculture branch, rather than horticulture, probably due to environmental issues of farms releasing excess nutrients into the environment, causing eutrophication.

This study included two surveys, one in Europe (including France) and one just in France, including participants experiencing different stages of the aquaponics adoption process. The special benefit of the French study is that it is a rare case of including participants very early on within their plans and getting back to them a few years after to see what happened with their plans and what challenges they faced in between.

For many, enthusiasm for aquaponics stems from the ideas of sustainable living, and several enthusiasts who were looking for a life change became aquaponic farmers. Yet, these start-ups face the harsh reality of high risks and competition in commercial food production.

A major source of challenges for commercial aquaponics originates from its complexity: as it includes both aquaculture and horticulture, most investment costs are doubled when compared to the competing enterprises that engage only in aquaculture or horticulture.

The same is true for the competencies required to operate the system. Furthermore, to ensure quick response to pests and disease, and also because of strict animal welfare regulations, the system requires alarm protocols and personnel on permanent stand-by.

This complexity causes high labor demand [15]. On the other hand, the survey of Love et al. [3] revealed that most of the respondents had less than 10 years of experience with aquaponics. The reason for this can be attributed to the relative novelty of technology since the first users are barely within the “early adopters” stage of innovation diffusion [30].

The next challenge is the lack of policy recognition [28]. Regulation obstacles are at least doubled as the farm needs to adhere both to the regulations pertaining to aquaculture and horticulture, and this is further complicated in an urban environment [29]. Finding public funding opportunities is difficult since the aquaculture funds mostly do not finance the plant side of production and vice versa.

Furthermore, while aquaponics in the USA. can be certified as organic, the aquaponics producers in Europe cannot benefit from an official label, as the technology is currently not recognized under any official label [31,32].

The third major challenge for the commercialization of aquaponics is the marketing of aquaponic produce. Here again, the definition of the business model is complex since the customers, restaurants or end-consumers, preferably purchase either fish or vegetables, but rarely from the same source. Consumer acceptance is a crucial element for the success of commercial aquaponic production.

Studies in Canada [7], Malaysia [33], and Romania [34] showed a generally positive attitude of end-consumers towards aquaponics. On the other hand, a survey in Berlin revealed that only 28% of those interviewed approved of aquaponic production in urban areas and only 27% expressed willingness to buy aquaponics products [35].

A more nuanced picture is presented by Miličić et al. [36], who conducted a survey of consumers´ knowledge and their acceptance of aquaponics products in several European countries, mostly from Belgium (41.3%), followed by Greece (9.4%), Iceland (9.1%), Slovenia (3.8%), and the Netherlands (3.5%).

Most respondents had a generally positive attitude towards aquaponics; however, nearly half had never heard about aquaponics before. This shows that the main challenge is building awareness of aquaponics and positive associations related to it.

In addition, the study participants reported a willingness to pay a premium price for aquaponics produce because they perceived the aquaponic products as free of antibiotics, pesticides, and herbicides, and connected with local producers, but not because of aquaponics as a type of production as such.

While some consumers in the study seemed to appreciate the innovation aspect of aquaponics, others expressed concerns about animal welfare as well as disgust with fish faeces being used as plant nutrients.

The aquaponics start-ups often fail due to insufficient initial investment and a lack of experience and skills. Farming is a demanding business and aquaponics is subject to both business and agriculture rules [12]. Even well-funded and widely marketed start-up companies in Europe had to announce failures (e.g., Ponika from Slovenia) and even bankruptcies (e.g., Urban Farmers from Switzerland).

These very recent events demonstrate that commercial aquaponics faces harsh realities as it must show that it can be competitive with conventional aquaculture and horticulture systems. This means that aquaponics systems either need to reach the same production scale as their competitors (which amounts to hundreds of tons of fish and thousands of tons of vegetables), or address niche markets and integrate other income resources.

The study shows that for early adopters of commercial aquaponics sustainability was an important motivator in addition to financial gains. At this stage, it is too early to predict whether the development of aquaponics follows the Gartner’s Hype Cycle towards a “slope of enlightenment” or whether it will remain a “hype” over a longer period of time. Our data show that the European and French early adopters indeed showed levels of inflated early expectations about commercial aquaponics. Moreover, whilst the participants of the survey still very much believe in the future of aquaponics, several expectations were thwarted.

As there are certain signs suggesting that the development of aquaponics has hit the “trough of disillusionment”, it is ever more important for the research on aquaponics to continue. We cannot predict the future of aquaponics, but we can speak of hope—if aquaponics is to be an important step in solving the issues of circular food production and sustainable resource use, then we can hope for an ever-increasing “slope of enlightenment” when aquaponics matures towards a reliable and accepted technology.

Although the future of aquaponics cannot be predicted with certainty, there are grounds for optimism. If aquaponics is to be an important step in solving the issues of circular food production and sustainable resource use, then an ever-increasing “slope of enlightenment”, when aquaponics matures towards a reliable and accepted technology, would be a welcome development.

Source: Turnsek, M., Joly, A., Thorarinsdottir, R., & Junge, R. (2020). Challenges of commercial aquaponics in Europe: beyond the hype. Water, 12(1), 306.

Useful Article: Remineralization Of Nutrients In Aquaponic Systems To Improve Plant Health

Leave a Comment!