Team J: Comparing the Sustainability of Aquaponics and Hydroponics Food Production Systems
Note/disclaimer: This webpage is for instructional purposes only and the scenario described below is fictional.
This page was developed as a hypothetical report on the sustainability of aquaponics versus hydroponics written on behalf of a non-profit looking to mitigate food insecurity due to food deserts in Milwaukee, WI.
Nonprofit Ponic Solutions RepresentativesBailey-Ann Hollatz, Biology and Psychology
Alexis Schank, Biology and Life Science Communications
Scenario | Abstract | Introduction | Methods | Results | Limitations | Conclusions | Citations | Acknowledgements | About the Authors |
As representatives from Nonprofit Ponic Solutions, a nongovernmental organization, we are undertaking this analysis in order to make a recommendation to the Milwaukee Food Council on whether hydroponic or aquaponic systems should be implemented in a food desert in Milwaukee, WI based on the three pillars of sustainability.
To face challenges with scarcities of freshwater and cultivable land as the global population grows, new food production systems are being developed that have the potential to reduce land and water inputs and harmful chemical outputs. This study aims to investigate and compare the environmental, economic, and social sustainability aspects of two such alternative food production systems, hydroponics and aquaponics. These two systems are being evaluated to determine which would be a more sustainable option for implementation in an urban food desert to provide local food security to residents of Milwaukee, WI. We conducted a systematic evaluation of the peer-reviewed scientific literature as well as an analysis of two local case studies of currently operating systems. We then culminated our results into a final recommendation. Our literature review concluded that hydroponic systems are generally more economically and socially sustainable and less environmentally sustainable than aquaponic systems. However, our selected case studies gave a different perspective on how these systems work in complex, real-life situations. Taking into account our perspective as a non-profit organization, we concluded that an aquaponic system would be the more sustainable approach for implementation in a food desert in urban Milwaukee, WI.
Need for alternative food production systems
With the growth of the global population comes increased stress on food production systems as inputs such as water and cultivable land become more scarce. In addition, environmental impacts of conventional food production systems through the use of industrial synthetic fertilizers are becoming increasingly significant. For these reasons, producers are turning towards alternative food production systems as a way to reduce land and water inputs and harmful chemical outputs of conventional cropping systems.
Hydroponics and aquaponics
Hydroponic and aquaponic systems are two types of modern agricultural systems that both utilize water with added nutrients rather than soil for plant growth. Because these systems can be implemented within greenhouses instead of on fertile land, they require less land area than conventional agricultural systems. An added advantage of not using soil as a medium for plant growth is the potential for vertical farming, which further increases the yield per unit area of land. Hydroponic and aquaponic systems also have the advantage of allowing for continuous plant growth throughout the year. Aquaponic and hydroponic systems, because of their precision in technology use, have been found to be more water-use efficient and nutrient-use efficient than conventional agricultural systems (AlShrouf, 2017). They also reduce fertilizer release into the environment that is common in conventional agricultural systems. Though aquaponic and hydroponic systems have many advantages over conventional agricultural systems, there are also some disadvantages including the need for more advanced technology and equipment, high electricity use, and problems with consumer preferences.
The main difference between hydroponic and aquaponic systems lies in their provision of nutrients to the cultivated plants. In hydroponic systems, formulated solutions of nutrients are added into the water to provide nutrients to the plants. Aquaponic systems consist of a combination of hydroponics and aquaculture (raising fish) in an integrated system. In these systems, fish are grown in the water that is used for plant growth, with the fish waste providing an organic nutrient source for the growing plants.
Figure 1. On the left is a traditional setup of a hydroponic system. Plant roots are suspended in a nutrient solution.
On the right is a traditional setup of an aquaponic system. Waste water from the fish tank is used as a source of nutrients for the plants and clean water is recirculated.
(Sources: https://offgridgorilla.com/off-grid-systems/food/hydroculture-hydroponics/ (left) and https://nunatsiaq.com/stories/article/65674seacan_farm_to_bring_cheap_fresh_produce_to_nunavut/ (right))
Many urban areas today are facing challenges with food supply infrastructure. Areas where there is limited access to affordable and nutritious food, particularly areas composed of predominantly lower income communities, are referred to as food deserts. 21% of the population of Milwaukee, WI, or 124,000 people, live further than 1 mile from a grocery store (City of Milwaukee, 2019). Because they take up less land and use less water than traditional agriculture, hydroponic and aquaponic systems are particularly desirable solutions to alleviate food deserts in urban areas where land area is scarce (König et al., 2016). Both hydroponic and aquaponic systems are flexible in scale, so they can be implemented as professional urban agriculture operations or community farming operations, or any scale in between, to provide a local food source for communities in food deserts (Schnitzler, 2012).
When seeking to compare the sustainability of hydroponic and aquaponic systems, one must fully consider the three pillars of sustainability:
- Environmental: nutrient use, water use, and material inputs and outputs
- Economic: initial cost to set up the operation, daily operating costs, and potential profit from products
- Social: consumer preferences, livability, community development, and placemaking
The purpose of this research is to gather relevant evidence from the scientific literature and case studies to investigate whether a hydroponic or aquaponic system would be a more sustainable approach to addressing urban food deserts in cities such as Milwaukee, WI. As representatives from a nongovernmental organization, we are undertaking this analysis to make a recommendation to the Milwaukee Food Council on which system should be implemented in a food desert in Milwaukee based on the three pillars of sustainability.
Though many studies exist that have investigated environmental sustainability components of hydroponic and aquaponic systems, few have directly compared the two systems while controlling for other factors. Those studies that do conduct direct comparisons indicate differences in nutrient use, water use, material inputs, and waste outputs between the two types of systems (Table 1).
Figure 2. Diagram of an aquaponic system comprised of a grow bed and fish tank connected by recirculating filtered and nutrient-rich water. Basic inputs to and outputs from the system are indicated by the large arrows (Cohen et al., 2018).
Nutrient use: The major difference between hydroponic and aquaponic systems in terms of their environmental impacts concerns the source of nutrients used for plant growth. In hydroponic systems, concentrated mixtures of synthetic fertilizers are added into the water to provide nutrients to the plants. In aquaponic systems, fish wastes are used as a nutrient source for the plants. As a result, inputs of nutrients differ between the two systems: concentrated inorganic nutrients are inputs for hydroponic systems and fish food is an input for aquaponic systems. One study directly compared fertilizer use of a double recirculating aquaponic system (DRAPS) and a traditional hydroponic system for growing tomatoes (Suhl et al., 2016). In a DRAPS system, the fish and plant cycles are separated and connected by tubing so that optimal nutrient, pH, and temperature conditions can be provided to both cycles separately. By growing tomatoes in both systems under controlled conditions, the researchers found that total fertilizer use in the aquaponic system was 25.2% lower than fertilizer use in the hydroponic system (Suhl et al., 2016).
Water use: Water use is another potential difference between hydroponic and aquaponic systems. Many papers mention that water use is lower in aquaponic systems than hydroponic systems because of water recirculation in aquaponic systems. In these systems, water that is provided to the plants can be reused for fish production because the plants and bacteria in the rooting zone filter the water to a point that it can be reused (Suhl et al., 2016; AlShrouf, 2017). One study found that one cubic meter of freshwater yielded 46.1 kg of tomato fruit and 1.5 kg of tilapia in an aquaponic system and yielded 47.7 kg of tomatoes in a hydroponic system. They concluded that total freshwater use efficiency was significantly higher in the aquaponic system than the hydroponic system and attributed this difference to the reuse and recycling of water in the aquaponic system (Suhl et al., 2016).
Electricity use: The scientific literature has not indicated that hydroponic and aquaponic systems have significant differences in electricity use, since they both require similar heating, cooling, and lighting conditions (Ghamkhar et al., 2019). For our study, we will assume that electricity use is similar between the two systems (Quagrainie et al., 2018).
Material inputs and waste outputs: Inputs and outputs of materials and wastes are another consideration when comparing the environmental sustainability of hydroponic and aquaponic systems (Figure 2, Figure 3). Because water and nutrients are recycled between the fish and plant cycles in aquaponic systems, these systems produce a small amount of waste. In hydroponic systems, on the other hand, the water used needs to be periodically dumped, and this fertilizer-rich water can cause negative impacts on ecosystems. In aquaponic systems, the major material output other than plants and fish is processed fish sludge. Matching the nutrient outputs from the fish with the nutrient requirements of the plants can reduce this extra material output. Not only waste outputs but material inputs differ between the two systems. In a life-cycle assessment of these systems, material inputs of PVC, concrete, steel, and expanded clay used for construction should be considered (Forchino et al., 2017). Aquaponic systems are generally more structurally complex than hydroponic systems because of the additional pumps and clarifiers needed to manage water and nutrient cycling between the fish and plant systems (Ghamkhar et al., 2019). As a result, the environmental impacts from the use of non-renewable material inputs is greater in aquaponic systems than hydroponic systems which generally require less equipment.
Figure 3. Inputs and outputs considered in the life-cycle assessment of an aquaponic system (Ghamkhar et al., 2019).
While some research has been conducted on the economic sustainability of aquaponic and hydroponic systems, results are extremely varied due to the wide range of systems and scales as well as the rapid development of new technologies. The main areas of interest from an economic standpoint include the initial start-up cost for each system, daily operating costs, market stability, and potential profit from products.
Initial Investment: Due to the complexity of the system, it is much costlier to start an aquaponics facility than it is for a hydroponic facility of the same scale. Aquaponics is a two tiered system that combines hydroponics with aquaculture; therefore, the technology for both of these complex production systems must be in place. Initial costs to start an aquaponics system are about 8% higher than those required for hydroponics (Quagrainie et al., 2018). For this reason, it is especially important for aquaponics facilities to be backed by funding from other sources (König et al., 2018).
Daily operating costs: Many of the operating needs are shared between these two systems. For example, both aquaponics and hydroponics require pumps and water filtration systems. Once installed, the mechanical components of the two systems have very similar energy costs (Quagrainie et al., 2018). While there are some differences in daily costs, they balance each other out in the end. Aquaponics requires fish feed, water tests, and fingerlings, whereas hydroponics require synthetic nutrients, more water, and have costlier waste management needs (Blidariu et al., 2011). Figure 4 shows a breakdown of daily costs for each system. Overall, the daily costs of each system are comparable, and we will consider them equal for the sake of our study.
Market factors: Aquaponic businesses have an advantage over hydroponics when it comes to stability and value added products. If something impacts the market for leafy greens or they have lower yields, aquaponic producers can rely on their fish for income (Blidariu et al., 2011). On the contrary, a hit to the leafy green market could put a hydroponics facility out of business, as they do not have the income diversity that aquaponics does. Additionally, hydroponic systems are almost always incapable of obtaining organic certification due to the amount of synthetic inputs that are required. Aquaponics on the other hand are often eligible for organic certification, which allows them to sell their products at a higher value (Blidariu et al., 2011). Once an aquaponics facility is organically certified, their products sell anywhere from 20% to 50% higher than nonorganic products (Quagrainie et al., 2018). However, there has been a recent debate in the organic sector as to whether or not aquaponics should continue to be considered for organic certification (Kledal et al., 2019). If aquaponics is unable to obtain organic certification in the future, it may impact the ability to market their product. But, as of right now, aquaponic products have an advantage over hydroponics in several market factors impacting their economic sustainability.
Profitability: Profitability is the ability to produce and sell enough product to make money after covering the costs of the operation. Hydroponics is considered a more profitable business for several reasons. With initial investment costs of aquaponics being about 8% higher than hydroponics and vegetable yields being on average 11% lower, it can be challenging to turn a profit (Quagrainie et al., 2018). Additionally, there are certain systematic barriers that impede on the profitability of aquaponic products. One of these barriers is consumer preference, which will be further explained in the social sustainability section.
Figure 4. A breakdown of operating costs for aquaponic systems (left) and hydroponic systems (right) (Quagrainie et al., 2018).
Livability: Livability is a community’s quality of life. Both hydroponics and aquaponics, by providing an opportunity, a process, and a product, positively contribute to a community’s quality of life in many different ways. As beautifully stated by Duarte et al., aquaponics is at the intersection of technology and art (Duarte et al., 2015). This logic may be applied to hydroponic food systems, as well, however there seems to be something special in the aquaculture component of aquaponic systems. The complexity and different components of the life cycle in aquaponic systems is preferred and more beneficial to the producers (Mchunu et al., 2017). This one seemingly minor difference between the two food systems may actually affect community members more than given credit for (Duarte et al., 2015). This evidence suggests that an aquaponic food production system may be more socially sustainable due to its positive contributions to community well-being.
Placemaking: A second major aspect of social sustainability is placemaking, or the planning and managing of public spaces. Compared to aquaponics, hydroponics is relatively easier to design and maintain at multiple scales (Mchunu et al., 2017). At the individual producer scale, aquaponics is more constrictive because of the orientation and required size of its set-up with the aquaculture and produce, requiring more resources to build and upkeep (Mchunu et al., 2017). Similarly, at the community scale, hydroponics requires less precise environmental conditions, orientation, and size than aquaponics (Schnitzler, 2012). For example, hydroponic systems can be added on the roof of buildings, vertically, or in current green spaces. This allows for urban planners to have an easier job adding a hydroponic food production system to a pre-existing urban environment. Thereby, hydroponics is an easier method for placemaking, and therefore, more socially sustainable in this sense.
Community development: Community development is the process of a community coming together. Given that community-scale hydroponic systems are typically in more accessible areas than aquaponic systems, hydroponics are an easier method to cultivate familial and neighborly bonds, community well-being, and local self-esteem (Schnitzler, 2012). Additionally, since it is an easier food system to share in a residential area, the stress of maintenance can be shared, as well as the pride that comes along with successfully growing one’s own crops (Schnitzler, 2012). Both aquaponics and hydroponics set-ups are family-friendly and encourage responsibility and knowledge acquisition. However, aquaponics demands more resources, knowledge, and skills, which can be off-putting for individuals or a community just starting up alternative food systems (Mchunu et al., 2017). For these reasons, a hydroponic food system may be more socially sustainable.
Consumer preferences: Although consumer preference may not be a part of the definition of social sustainability, if consumers are not supporting a production system, process, or behavior, there is no way that it can be successfully implemented into the community. With one random sample suggesting that 90% of individuals preferred high quality food over cheap food, 97% favored organic rather than inorganic food, and 73% were interested in buying hydroponically-grown food, the data suggests that hydroponics would be a popular and appreciated form of food production (Gole et al., 2020). Similarly, a majority of individuals would purchase aquaponically-grown products, especially if there was a prior foundation of knowledge on what these technologies were (Short et al., 2017). However, because hydroponics is a more well-known form of food production and only deals with one type of system, it is seen as more hygienic, cheaper, and easier to implement (Gole et al., 2020). For these reasons, hydroponics is the consumer preferred system.
Summary of Literature Review Results
Table 1. Comparison of environmental, economic, and social considerations in hydroponic vs. aquaponic systems based on a literature review of peer-reviewed scientific articles.
Selected Case Studies
Medium-scale aquaponic case study: The Farmory
To place our study in a more practical context, we interviewed a representative from The Farmory, an aquaponic facility in Green Bay, WI, that is run from a nonprofit business model similar to the one we plan to use. The Farmory’s goal is to reduce urban food deserts, cut down on the environmental impacts of food production, and build community in the Green Bay area. At the Farmory, Yellow Perch are used as the main fish in the system so that this once flourishing native species can make an appearance in local restaurants and grocery stores. They grow several types of leafy greens and herbs, which are also distributed locally.
The operation runs on solar power, and has also taken other steps to become environmentally sustainable such as implementing a vermicompost system for fish food and to break down plant materials. The Farmory will use a social enterprise model where all income from products sold will go towards improving the facility and funding their programs, therefore, making it an economically sustainable system. The Farmory is extremely intertwined with the community, as it is staffed almost completely by volunteers. They also work in close conjunction with local schools, shelters, and community groups to provide education and outreach programs. The Farmory is a perfect example of how an aquaponic system can be implemented in an urban area to improve the environmental, economic, and social sustainability of food production.
Figure 5. The Farmory in Green Bay, WI. Source: http://www.farmory.org/
Small-scale hydroponic case study: Fork Farms
Fork Farms, based in Appleton, WI, is a hydroponics technology company that partners with schools, food pantries, restaurants, family residences, etc. to implement indoor installations of hydroponic systems. They have developed the Flex Farm, a self-contained vertical hydroponic system that is a highly efficient and easy-to-use way of providing fresh, affordable harvests of leafy greens and herbs (Figure 6). Flex Farms are portable and only require a standard electrical outlet and less than 10 square feet of space to operate. Systems such as Flex Farms are low-maintenance applications of hydroponic systems that can provide environmental, economic, and social benefits to communities. However, the high cost associated with these systems highlights the lack of economic feasibility of implementing some types of small-scale hydroponic or aquaponic systems in the real world as the industry currently exists.
Figure 6. Flex Farm system with 288 plant spaces, fully contained tank and irrigation system, and three LED lights. Source: https://forkfarms.com
- The wide range of systems and scales of hydroponics and aquaponics
- These can range from small do-it-yourself projects to multi-million dollar enterprises that produce food on a large scale (Quagrainie et al., 2018). To add to the complexity, technologies are continually changing and improving faster than studies can be published (König et al., 2018). As such, the generalizability of these findings may not be the strongest because of the wide array of systems analyzed.
- Uncertainty in how consumers will respond, since there aren't many aquaponic and hydroponic products on the markets now.
- Lack of studies from the perspective of a nonprofit business model
- Further research should be done on a wider range of operations, especially those that encompass the nonprofit model.
Our literature review concluded that hydroponic systems are generally more economically and socially sustainable and less environmentally sustainable than aquaponic systems. However, it is important to remember that these results represent the overall average of comparing the two systems. Through our selected case studies, we were able to illustrate the true complexities and context-dependencies of the systems’ sustainability in real-life situations.
Environmental: We found that aquaponics is generally more environmentally sustainable than hydroponics due to the fact that it is a more closed system with recycling of water and nutrients and minimal waste products. In general, aquaponics fits the definition of sustainable agriculture more than hydroponics because it integrates plant and animal production, better integrates natural biological cycles, and uses nonrenewable resources more efficiently (Gold, 1999).
Economic: Most of the research we reviewed stated that hydroponic systems were able to generate a larger profit than aquaponic systems. While there is some controversy as to whether aquaponic systems are economically sustainable in general, our standpoint as a nonprofit organization places less value on the profitability of the system. Additionally, we believe that if run as a social enterprise, an aquaponic system would generate enough income to sustain itself given that the majority of initial investment costs are funded. This is supported by our case study of The Farmory.
Social: The literature suggested that hydroponics is more socially sustainable than aquaponics because it promotes the individual and community’s quality of life, bolsters the community coming together more, and requires less hassle in producing and maintaining. However, our case studies suggested that aquaponic facilities can have a significant positive social impact, especially when used as a means of bringing the community together and providing educational opportunities. Therefore, the sustainability of the system depends on the business model and the goals of the project.
Through our literature review, we found that overall, hydroponic systems are slightly more sustainable than aquaponic systems (Table 1). Contrastingly, our case study of The Farmory showed the feasibility of successful implementation of an aquaponic system in an urban community. The social components of sustainability, which the literature favored hydroponics for, were found to hold true in this aquaponics case study. Additionally, our perspective as a non-profit organization puts less weight on the economic and profit aspects of implementation than the environmental and social components. With this perspective, we conclude that an aquaponic system would be the more sustainable approach for implementation in a food desert in urban Milwaukee, WI.
- Public education: Prior research has shown that increased knowledge about these alternative agricultural systems promotes individuals to purchase products produced from these systems, as well as become producers themselves (Short et al., 2017). In order to increase the popularity of these systems and improve the technology, it is crucial that the public is more educated on the topic.
- Community action: As demonstrated by The Farmory and Fork Farms, community involvement is imperative in bringing about awareness, educating, and providing resources for individuals to better understand and potentially adopt these alternative food systems. Similar projects, such as community workshops, working with students, and striving for strong community bonds, is essential for using these food systems to mitigate food deserts in Milwaukee, WI.
- Increased stakeholder involvement: A stakeholder is an individual who has a particular interest or investment in something. Potential stakeholders in hydroponic and aquaponic systems include producers, local community members, local schools, food banks, restaurants, and researchers. Garnering support and having those with influence supporting the implementation of these foods systems is critical to success.
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This project would not have been successful without the contributions of the outstanding students in our Food Production Systems & Sustainability class. We would particularly like to acknowledge the wonderful and challenging questions, and the specific knowledge provided by Brittany Isidore, MaryGrace Erickson, and Michel Wattiaux. We would also like to thank Allison Hellenbrand for providing us personal insight on our case study of The Farmory.
My name is Bailey-Ann Hollatz. I am a pre-med student looking to improve the health and well-being of those around me. I am interested in these alternative food systems because of what they can do for the physical and psychological prosperity of the individual and the community as a whole.
My name is Lexi Schank. I am a sophomore studying Biology and Life Science Communications with a certificate in Food Systems. I have a passion for agriculture, and I hope to pursue a career that allows me to improve the sustainability of our food production systems. In my free time, I enjoy horseback riding, hiking, drawing, and being active in any way I can!
My name is Anna Schmidt and I am a senior studying Biology and Environmental Sciences. I am planning to pursue a career in the realm of freshwater ecology/water resource management, so I am interested in learning more about alternative food production systems that have a smaller impact on our freshwater resources. Outside of school, I am a big fan of biking, knitting, reading books, and being outside!