Aquaculture is the farming of fish and other aquatic animals, while hydroponics involves growing plants without any soil. Both approaches have been successful on their own, however, combining fish and vegetable production — so-called aquaponics — could also be profitable, according to a new analysis published on 19 May in the journal Aquaculture Research (1).
Although aquaponics systems, which combine conventional aquaculture with hydroponics, have become a hotly debated topic in future food production, data on the economic feasibility of aquaponics is relatively limited.
To figure out how realistic the approach might be, researchers from the Leibniz-Institute of Freshwater Ecology and Inland Fisheries (IGB) analyzed one year of real production data from an existing aquaponics system — the “Mueritzfischer” — located in Waren (Müritz) in Germany. The research system was build as part of INAPRO, an EU-funded project led by IGB aimed at demonstrating the viability of an innovative aquaponics system.
The 540-square-metre facilities produce fish and vegetables on a large scale in a combined recirculating system. The fish and plants are grown separately within the two recirculating systems and sensors are used to continuously monitor can connect the two systems when needed to create optimal growth conditions.
The authors examined two different scenarios and performed an extensive profitability analysis. One scenario showed that the aquaponics approach can be profitable if facilities are sufficiently large. Using this scenario, the researchers developed a model case, which they used to calculate figures for different sized facilities.
Under the right conditions, aquaponics can have both environmental and cost benefits, according to the authors. The main barriers to the commercialisation of aquaponics are the high investment costs and high operating costs such as for fish feed, labour, and energy, particularly in countries like Germany. Another challenge is that profitability largely depends on the market environment and the production risks, which can be difficult to predict.
Lead author Goesta Baganz believes there might be huge potential for aquaponics in urban areas: “The already profitable model case would cover an overall space of about 2,000 square metres. This would mean that professional aquaponics would also be possible in urban and peri-urban areas, where space is scarce and often relatively expensive.”
“If, therefore, urban aquaponics can make a profit on such a scale, there is even greater opportunity for local food production, which is becoming increasingly important throughout the world as urbanisation progresses”, Baganz explained.
In a global context, Professor Werner Kloas, who led the project, said: “Considering current problems like climate change, population growth, urbanisation as well as overexploitation and pollution of natural resources, global food production is the largest pressure caused by humans on Earth, threatening ecosystems and the stability of societies. Consequently, one of the key societal goals is to achieve eco-friendly, efficient food production,”
(1) Baganz, G. et al. Profitability of multi‐loop aquaponics: Year‐long production data, economic scenarios and a comprehensive model case. Aquaculture Research (2020). DOI: 10.1111/are.14610