By: George Brooks*
Flying from Phoenix to Las Vegas for Aquaculture America a couple of months ago I got a pleasant surprise. The inflight magazine featured an article on a trendy restaurant that served fresh tilapia that they grow themselves. Though the word was never mentioned, the IBC tote in the photo spoke volumes. They use aquaponics.
Anecdotal stories like the one about the restaurant are not unusual and are getting more and more common. Spurred on by the aftermath of the great recession and the sustainability/green movement, there is a need and rapidly growing desire for local sustainable sources of healthy food. Because of this, urban agriculture has gone mainstream. In other words, majorities of people are accepting it as a viable means of achieving important goals. A great example of this is here in my home city of Phoenix Arizona.
By Arizona law, every 10 years all cities must develop a new General Plan for approval by the residents. A General Plan is essentially the dream of what the residents want their city to be. Zoning and civic planning are the processes used to frame the dream and then development follows to make the dream real. The past couple of years I had the honor of being one of those good people appointed by the mayor to write this document and ended up as one of the vice chairs and sustainability leads.
Believe it or not, Phoenix has a food problem. Most of our food comes from hundreds if not thousands of miles away, creating huge potential sustainability and food security issues. According to the local newspaper, we actually waste 40% of the nearly 2 billion pounds of food shipped here every year costing the city millions of dollars to landfill. To exacerbate issues, at about 520 square miles Phoenix is huge. It is 6% larger in surface area than the city of Los Angeles with only a little over 1/3 of the people. This low population density is a prescription for food deserts where some who don’t own cars, particularly seniors, have great difficulty getting to healthy food. Imagine waiting a half hour for a bus when it is 110 degrees in the summer and with distances often exceeding a mile or two to the next supermarket, it is too far to walk for most. Phoenix has also been in a drought since the late 1990’s.
To further complicate food access, nearly 18% percent of the population of the Phoenix-Mesa-Scottsdale metro area live in poverty, in 2013 the third-highest percentage among the 25 largest metropolitan areas in the nation according to local media. So increasing food cost is a major issue that beyond economics echoes into family health and wellness and the academic achievement of children. Simply stated, if a child can’t eat, a child can’t learn.
However the people and leadership of Phoenix are forward thinking. Based upon the principles of Sustainability, the new general plan found at Phoenix.gov, places a direct focus on creating healthy food systems so that all residents have access to “healthy, affordable, secure and sustainable food” for all residents. This includes such things as reducing food waste, improved recycling, water conservation, improved transit (more buses and light rail lines) but also more sources of food including Urban Agriculture. The plan was presented to the voters in August of 2015 and passed 76% to 24%. The city is now beginning the challenge of rule making where the details will be worked out, but so far so good.
The cool thing is, Phoenix is not alone. Cities across the nation from Tucson to Atlanta are doing the same thing. They are creating circular economies where the local production of food is a major component. The question is “is aquaponics ready do join the party?”
In Phoenix amongst others, there are two clear opportunities for aquaponic technology and product. Because they have not been formally defined until perhaps now, let’s call one distributed production and the other is centralized production. I have adapted these terms from the solar industry, for they fit aquaponics quite well.
As solar energy production located on home rooftops can supply lower cost power literally at the source of the need for it, backyard aquaponics has the potential to provide food in a similar manner. Because the market for such food is the family, the competition for costs/price for this “solar panel for food” is not the traditional land farm, but instead the supermarket down the street. If the family can grow food with aquaponics for less money and hassle than buying it from the store, aquaponics wins. This is particularly important if small aquaponics units can indeed, like solar panels, be demonstrated to produce an economically important percentage of a family’s total needs.
However as with producing distributed energy, output or backyard food production are difficult to manage consistently creating intermittency in output. There are also the challenges of zoning, homeowner associations and other rules and regulations that may restrict all types of urban agriculture including aquaponics. There are also sometimes unpredicted regulatory restrictions. For example, recently and unexpectedly, the state of Arizona in seeking to, understandably, protect its valuable natural resources placed new requirements for the use of tilapia in aquaponics.
So, what needs to be done? In my humble opinion, construction, operational costs and system complexity must be reduced significantly. The systems must be made more user-friendly and aesthetically pleasing. A good example of this is found in a particular and popular vertical hydroponic garden that is on sale now. The design has as small footprint and is considered to be clean, pleasant to look at and easy to use. Though for some it may seem pricey, the clean design overcomes many marketing obstacles. Aquaponics innovators must now do the same thing while being cost competitive.
At a recent Aquaculture America conference in the aquaponics section, after listening to several presentations make the same basic claims about the technology, a participant asked the obvious question about the gorilla in the room. “Where is the data?” An additional major hurdle that must be overcome is the lack of replicated studies published in peer-reviewed journals. Business is business and must have its proprietary information. However, universities producing the foundational information for the farmers to build on have traditionally supported agriculture. In my opinion for the industry to advance and for its credibility to be enhanced, this tradition must continue.
But research takes money. Some aquaculture industries have trade associations dedicated to, amongst other things, finding funding for such projects. Aquaponics currently does not but this is an issue that may be addressed soon.
These replicated studies must cover all aspects of the science from demonstrating seemingly simple things such as, for example, are blue and pink boards truly safe or to they actually leach? They must also review the more advanced issues including new fish species and plant species to use, real production rates and costs. Case study scans across the web reveal lots of systems but most are growing little food and most food production numbers are anecdotal or part of company marketing.
Finally and quite frankly, many people would rather buy their food from the store anyway, so that leads us to the second market, Centralized Food Production.
Like solar, Centralized Food Production follows the current food production and management models and may be in the parts of cities where the resource is most available. Their size adds to their operational stability, ability to produce a wider variety of produce than backyard-scale operations and ability to capture economies of scale and scope. However, they require large capital investments. Because they are producing food for public consumption they must also comply with all city, county, state and federal food safety regulations and that can be a daunting task. The fact that the national GHP/GAP rules are not written yet makes the challenge even greater.
Their market is also more difficult than the backyard version. Unlike the backyard models, centralized commercial production must compete directly with traditional organic and non-organic soil based food production on price and quality. At the recent Balle (Business Alliance for Local Living Economies) conference in Phoenix it was stated, and quite accurately, that even if local entrepreneurs did not have to compete with traditional food production, as Urban Agriculture increases supply and demand will still force the price down. Case in point, Phoenix sits just 200 miles from one of the major lettuce farming areas in the United States, Yuma AZ. This creates a market, at least for this product, that is very difficult for aquaponic producers to compete in.
Aquaponics is an innovation and innovations evolve to solve problems. One of the biggest challenges for any technology to jump to mainstream success is to understand what the mainstream wants. All too often the needs of innovators and early adopters of a technology are quite different or only a fraction of the needs of the more pragmatic mainstream audience. For example Elon Musk seems to have a good handle on this. His new low cost electric car has been called the Tesla for the mainstream. Why? Because it gives the customer the sustainable cachet and luxury of the earlier models at a lower cost while still getting good mileage on a charge. His SpaceX company is seeking to do the same thing, in this case make space flight more affordable. Also as geeky cool as it was, the iPhone did not really go mainstream until Apple was able to demonstrate that it could be as good a business phone as the then market leader Blackberry.
In my opinion an innovation is ready to go mainstream when it is mature enough to take on big issues. Things like practical electric cars and affordable space flight are big issues but so is healthy, practical and affordable urban agriculture. Fortunately thanks to cities like Phoenix and many others like it across the nation and the world, aquaponics innovators have now been given their marching orders on what needs they must address, and so, they don’t have to guess. If local entrepreneurs can indeed meet the stated desires of cities like Phoenix, the technical and business model innovations created will kick aquaponics into the mainstream.
*Dr. George Brooks, Jr. holds a Ph.D. in Wildlife and Fisheries Sciences from the University of Arizona in Tucson and served as that institution’s first Aquaculture Extension Specialist. He is currently Principle at the NxT Horizon Consulting group and also teaches Aquaponics at Mesa Community College. Dr. Brooks is co-chairing the upcoming Aquaponics Association conference in Austin Texas. He may be reached at email@example.com