Aquaponic food production requires a broad spectrum of knowledge in order to understand and manage the processes involved, and for commercial aquaponics to develop its full potential, it will require an appropriately trained workforce. Devised in collaboration as an Erasmus+ Strategic Partnership for Higher Education, Aqu@teach covers the basics of aquaponics with a focus on transferable and entrepreneurial skills.
The aquaponics curriculum can either be taught using blended learning combining digital media and the internet with classroom formats that require the physical co-presence of the teacher and students or as an e-learning course.
The policies affecting food systems in Europe—agriculture, trade, food safety, environment, research and development, education, fiscal and social policies, market regulation, competition, and many others—have developed in an ad hoc fashion over decades.
However, in recent years, there has been a common agenda to strive towards improving the economic, social, and environmental sustainability of both the methods by which food is produced and the supply chains by which it is distributed. In the European Parliamentary Research Service report on ‘Ten technologies which could change our lives, aquaponics was singled out as a solution for developing innovative and sustainable food sources for Europe.
Combining two technologies—recirculating aquaculture systems (RAS) and hydroponics—in a closed-loop system, aquaponics requires a low level of resource input, since the plants receive their nutrients from the fish water. Over-fishing in the sea, water scarcity, and soil/water degradation caused by intensive farming, the use of antibiotics in aquaculture, and pesticides and herbicides in field production, should all favor this soil-less food production technology that neither contributes to nor exacerbates these problems.
Controlled-environment agricultural technologies such as aquaponics are likely to become more important in the future due to climate change, while the phenomenon of ‘food kilometres’—the carbon footprint of food production and distribution—plays to the strengths of local production of food, especially within cities, by shortening food supply chains and improving the security and resilience of food systems.
Synergy can be created between a farm and its host building by coupling the flows of the agricultural process—heat, water, and CO2—with those of the building, in order to close the waste, resource, and energy loops.
Aquaponics also clearly has a role to play in the agendas of both Agriculture 4.0 and Aquaculture 4.0, which embrace the application of innovative and disruptive technologies in order to increase efficiency, productivity, and sustainability.
Agriculture 4.0, also called ‘the fourth agricultural revolution’, embraces the adoption of technologies such as hydroponics and vertical farming to ensure food security in the face of growing population size, increased urbanization, scarcity of natural resources, and climate change, while ‘Aquaculture 4.0′ advocates the application of Industry 4.0 technologies, such as the Internet of Things and artificial intelligence, in fishery management strategies that require real-time monitoring of water quality, such as RAS and multi-trophic aquaculture.
Governments have the power to foster a full ecosystem of technology companies, research centers, universities, and innovative start-ups working together to drive forward these agendas, and can enable the environment by offering financial incentives, regulatory flexibility, and providing infrastructure at an affordable price. However, aquaponics requires explicit political support in Europe regarding legislation, because, as hybrid technology, it falls between the two stools of agriculture and aquaculture.
At the EU level, the policy is dictated by two separate Directorates-General of the European Commission—Agriculture and Rural Development (DG AGRI) and Maritime Affairs and Fisheries (DG MARE)—and by separate European Parliament Committees (AGRI and PECH). In the absence of an umbrella strategy cutting across these different policy areas, a number of synergies are missed, including aquaponics. This silo approach to the governance of food production is also found in the national ministries of many countries in Europe.
However, there are signs that things at EU level are starting to change or, at least, that efforts are being made to break down the institutional silos in order to foster innovation. In 2012, the European Commission launched five European Innovation Partnerships, one of which—EIP-AGRI—is dedicated to agricultural productivity and sustainability.
Their mandate is to help to pool expertise and resources by bringing together public and private sectors at EU, national, and regional levels, and to support cooperation between research and innovation partners. Their recent report on circular horticulture acknowledged the contribution that aquaponics could make, although it also flagged up the bottlenecks, including the lack of experience in and tradition of aquaponic farming in Europe.
In order for aquaponics to develop its potential in Europe, it needs an appropriately trained workforce. The Aqu@teach project aimed to address that need, by developing the first-ever aquaponics curriculum specifically for higher education students. Aquaponic food production requires a broad spectrum of knowledge—aquaculture, horticulture, chemistry, biology, food safety, and engineering—in order to understand and manage the processes involved.
The Aqu@teach curriculum was designed to equip students with expert knowledge and skills, as well as digital, entrepreneurial, and transferable skills that will provide them with a competitive advantage in the labor market. The curriculum was developed by an Erasmus+ Strategic Partnership for Higher Education between the University of Greenwich (UK), the Zurich University of Applied Sciences (CH), the Technical University of Madrid (ES), the University of Ljubljana, and the Biotechnical Center Naklo (SI).
Given the multidisciplinary nature of aquaponics, the curriculum can be taught as an optional module in a wide variety of degree courses, including agriculture, agronomy, horticulture, aquaculture, and ecological engineering. Indeed, catering to the variety of backgrounds of the potential students was one of the greatest challenges that the partnership faced when developing the curriculum.
Aqu@teach can be taught either using blended learning—combining digital media and the internet with classroom formats that require the physical co-presence of the teacher and students—or as an instructor-led, cohort-based e-learning course. In education, it is often taken for granted that technologies can ‘enhance learning’, and the term ‘Technology Enhanced Learning (TEL) is increasingly being used in Europe and other parts of the world.
However, it is important to be aware that adding too many technologies to support teaching and learning, especially where one or two can do a job well, can overwhelm a student. Students are efficient technology users and are interested in getting jobs done, simply and conveniently.
Resources are sought quickly, and students rarely look beyond the first page of results of a Google search. The pilot run of the Aquaponics Curriculum confirmed these findings. Based on student feedback, the number of internet search activities was subsequently reduced, and the variety of technologies was simplified.
The development of open access e-learning courses such as Aqu@teach is one of the best possible solutions for democratizing higher education, thereby contributing towards achieving Sustainable Development Goal 4—inclusive and equitable quality education and lifelong learning opportunities for all. In contrast to ready-made online courses hosted on private platforms where the curriculum is fixed, Aqu@teach provides educators with a flexible toolbox that they can use to suit their needs.
Since the modules are self-contained, educators may choose to teach all or just some of them, either in a blended format—for example by first introducing content online to students at home, with class time then being used to deepen understanding through discussion and problem-solving activities—or entirely online.
Indeed, the Moodle files, as well as the accompanying documents—the textbooks, the curriculum guides for teachers, and the module guides for students have been released with Creative Commons NonCommercial-ShareAlike licenses, which means that educators can alter the contents as they see fit, including translating them into languages other than the ones in which they are currently available: English, Spanish, German, and Slovene.
This flexibility was designed to ensure that the curriculum can be adopted as widely as possible, in order to encourage the development of an appropriately trained workforce and thereby enable aquaponics to develop its full potential as an innovative and sustainable food production technology. All of the Aqu@teach resources are freely available on the project website: https://www.aquateach.wordpress.com.
The development of Aqu@teach involved a consortium of more than twenty individuals with different expertise, including aquaponics, aquaculture, horticulture, agricultural engineering, food safety, marketing, online teaching, and theory and practice of learning.
The resulting Aquaponics Curriculum, the first specifically designed for university-level students, combines high-quality knowledge in diverse fields and the specifics of interdisciplinary integration and was co-designed with students in order to ensure that the result meets their needs.
The supplementary Entrepreneurial Skills module introduces the process for translating that specialist knowledge into a viable business model. The uptake of Aqu@teach by higher education institutions is being monitored in order to be able to evaluate its impact on the future development of commercial aquaponics.
Source: Milliken, S., Ovca, A., Antenen, N., Villarroel, M., Bulc, T. G., Kotzen, B., & Junge, R. (2021). Aqu@ teach—the first aquaponics curriculum to be developed specifically for university students. Horticulturae, 7(2), 18.