The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations has emphasized aquaponics as a future sustainable food production practice and has recently released guidelines on small scale aquaponics production systems [1
]. In Europe, many start-up companies are taking the first steps towards commercial aquaponics production [2
]. However, European food production standards and an institutional European framework are not yet available for an integrated production system [3
]. The present paper therefore aims to contribute to the literature in two ways. First, to analyse the current situation of aquaponics and highlight the main restrictions of the present activity in European countries in order to alert public decision makers of the need to analyse and solve the main problems of this sector better. Secondly, to analyse consumers’ knowledge about aquaponics and their acceptance of aquaponics products in different European regions in order better to define a marketing strategy and a plan of development to overcome the actual difficulties that directly affect producers, commercialization and the sector in general.
1.1. The State of the Art of Aquaponics
According to European food production standards, aquaponics products still cannot be certified organic, since according to European Commission Regulation (EC) No. 889/2008 paragraph 4 [5
], organic plant production is based on nourishing plants primarily through a soil ecosystem and so hydroponic cultivation, in which plants grow with their roots in an inert medium feed with soluble minerals and nutrients is not allowed. Recirculating aquaculture systems (RAS) are also clearly prohibited as organic aquaculture according to European Commission Regulation (EC) No. 710/2009 paragraph 11 [6
], although exceptions are made for hatcheries and nurseries.
The current institutional European framework, the gaps in legislation and the lack of legislative uniformity among EU Member States (EU MS) have strong negative impacts and hinder commercialization of aquaponics at the European level. According to Joly et al. [4
], the main difficulties include constraints at three different levels: (1) administrative and organizational; (2) technical; and (3) environmental.
Major administrative and organizational constraints in the EU MS include that the European standard classification of productive economic activities [7
] does not have a general or specific code for aquaponics but only separate codes for animal or plant production. That means, in practice, the impossibility of efficient development and progress of aquaponics business in European countries on a commercial scale. Currently, the process of registration of aquaponics production activities is confusing, time consuming, involves a lot of effort and is therefore inefficient. This because companies cannot register and perform this activity in a distinct way but only as two separate production activities, i.e., animal and plant production. On the other hand, and in correlation with the first constraint, that means that aquaponics production cannot be subsidized by the Common Agricultural Programs (CAP) as a distinct activity. In EU MS, agricultural activities are highly subsidized and their competitiveness, in great part, is a result of financial support from CAP subsidies [8
]. That is not possible in the case of aquaponics and represents a huge constraint to the development of the aquaponics sector.
Environmental constraints occur due to EU MS environmental legislation, which considers separation of the effluents of aquaponics for plants and for animal production. Solid fish excrements are currently considered fish waste and not plant nutrient. This is another restriction that aquaponics farmers in Europe face and it contributes to a loss of efficiency in the activity. “However
, when solid fish wastes are adequately processed
, then the water nourishing the vegetables roots
, is no longer fish waste but treated water
], which can be used in the hydroponic part in which plants grow.
Technical restrictions occur because commercialization and food safety norms are not explicit for aquaponics products. It is therefore difficult to run a business and commercialize the final production because each production type in the cycle belongs to different quality control services at different ministries, depending on the EU MS. Joly et al. [4
] note that no specific rules apply for produce grown in aquaponics production. One could therefore assume that separate regulations apply for, on the one hand, vegetable and, on the other, fish produce.
Despite these restrictions, aquaponics companies, aquaponics suppliers and many start-up businesses are taking the first steps towards commercial aquaponics production and there are also a few country governmental initiatives around the world.
In the United States of America, the history of aquaponics goes further back and a few medium scale commercial systems operate. Backyard aquaponics farming has also been quite popular in many regions [9
]. Since 2008, aquaponics products produced in the USA can be certified organic according to the rules laid out in federal law by the National Organic Program of the United States Department of Agriculture [10
], which provides a good starting point for pricing aquaponics products higher and offers a better competitive advantage on the market.
Nowadays, consumer awareness of the health benefits of locally and organically produced products is on the rise [11
] and consumers make more conscious decisions when buying food [13
], especially in developed and industrial countries. Consumer acceptance and certification criteria are of special interest for the development of commercial-scale aquaponics systems. All available studies about aquaponics have focused mainly on surveying aquaponics producers [14
] or analysing specific case studies of aquaponics production, mostly in the USA [15
], or specific Canadian provinces such as Alberta [16
], or states such as Puerto Rico [17
] and Hawaii [13
]. To the author’s knowledge, a limited number of studies are available on consumers’ acceptance of aquaponics products, with only three published so far—on consumers’ acceptance of aquaponics products in Malaysia [20
] and on the perception of aquaponics products in Romania [21
] and Berlin [22
Aquaponics, due to its recycling character, is one of the most promising types of sustainable urban farming [23
]. Analysis of commercial urban roof-top farms showed that there are two types: soil-based open farms and soil-less hydroponic or aquaponic farms [24
]. However, a recent study among urban residents in Berlin showed that only 28% of the sample approved aquaponics production of fish and vegetables in urban areas and only 27% of this sample expressed willingness to buy aquaponics products [22
]. Consumers in Malaysia [20
], on the other hand, expressed high levels of positive attitude towards aquaponics products and high intentions to buy aquaponics products. Consumers in Romania also held a positive overall image of aquaponics and aquaculture products due to their health benefits and freshness [21
]. What these studies did not take into account, however, is the fact that aquaponics is a very young food production method and that, in general, consumers are not likely to be acquainted with the method. People often express attitudes about issues with which they are not familiar or about which they have never thought before, but they express their attitudes nevertheless. This is because they do not want to “lose face” and would rather express an attitude than have to admit that they are not familiar with the concept in question.
The great challenge nowadays is and will be in the coming decades meeting the increasing need for food production and distribution in big cities in a sustainable way [25
]. “Organoponics” means aquaponics, and other low-input systems, as defined by Eigenbrod and Gruda [26
], will continue to play an important role in sustainable and secure food production in the future.
Aquaponics is also especially promoted by government officials in Cuba, which is why both the yield and the area of this cultivation method have increased. These systems are used in the country for self-consumption as well as for schools and hospitals. This particular system is extremely sustainable, since it operates without fertilizers and is clearly linked to ecologically friendly practices [26
The current work of Feucht and Zander [28
] about aquaculture in Germany reveals that aquaculture methods are criticized by the public for potentially causing ecological problems and health risks for consumers. Unfavourable public perceptions may lead to a decline in consumption. Feucht and Zander [28
] confirmed that production might be negatively affected, since legislation and therefore approval procedures are influenced by public perceptions. The aquaculture industry must consider public reactions to aquaculture production practices in order to prosper further.
Feucht and Zander [28
] also focused on the presentation of recirculating systems and organic aquaculture. The results of media analysis indicate, in this case, that the analysed media primarily reported on aquaculture in a positive to neutral tone. The economic benefits of aquaculture dominated the coverage, whereas potential negative aspects of aquaculture received less attention. Organic fish farming and closed recirculating systems were both presented as eco-friendly practices.
Results from Mauracher et al. [29
] about consumer preferences regarding the introduction of new organic products suggest that, while organic aquaculture might be a new and important strategy for diversification, if suitable communication, either from a public policy or commercial perspective, and labelling/certification are not taken into consideration, the added value of the production method might not be perceived by the final consumers. The authors refer to the inefficiency of small production units also leading to scale inefficiencies, due to the cost of machinery and buildings. These recommendations can also be followed by aquaponics practitioners.
Consumers’ willingness to pay (WTP) for organic leafy vegetables was studied with a contingent valuation approach in Rasht City, Iran by Kalashami et al. [30
]. The main conclusions were that technological developments and changes in lifestyle and food regime have increased the frequency of diseases such as cancer. Modern agricultural systems have been criticized and a consensus reached for the introduction of organic agriculture to increase efficiency and reduce damage to the environment and public health.
1.2. The Methodological Approach
There is a huge consensus among various authors about the importance of multivariate analysis of consumers’ attitudes and values and consumer typologies through multivariate methods. These techniques were initially used in order to avoid aggregation errors in mathematical programming models and/or to integrate the psychological aspects of stakeholders in the decision-making process, especially when using multi-criteria decision models [31
The main authors consider that segmentation of a panel of consumers is very useful in preference studies [32
]. Two main multivariate techniques have traditionally been used to perform typification of consumers: Principal Component Analysis (PCA) and Cluster Analysis (CA).
PCA consists of identifying, based on a set of variables, a few factors that can synthesize most of the total information contained in the original variables. These factors are the common elements that form the basis of the variables intercollinearity [33
]. This technique has largely been used for reducing the complexity of explaining farmers’ and consumers’ typologies [35
PCA is classified among descriptive methods analysing interdependencies between variables. There are therefore no dependent variables and independent variables; the simultaneous combination of analysed variables (interdependences) is important [33
Based on different factors, CA is a good instrument to use for studying the consumption, for example, of food products [38
]. CA is a multivariate analysis technique used to form homogeneous groups, i.e., those that represent major homogeneity characteristics within a group and great heterogeneity between groups [31
]. According to Nikiforova et al. [39
], CA is widely used in economics and other related sciences. It involves grouping blocks of data in clusters using several indicators.
Gámbaro and Ellis [40
] used CA in order to identify possible groups of consumers with different perceptions about the healthiness of different types of chocolate. Hierarchical CA was carried out on the scores. Trocchia and Janda [41
] used a CA approach for consumer segmentation using a vegetarian/carnivorous distinction. Rohm and Swaminathan [42
] used CA to define the typology of online shoppers based on shopping motivations. These authors reviewed all the shopping typology literature and their determinants and motivations. Vigneau et al. [32
] performed segmentation of a panel of consumers using the clustering of variables around latent directions of preferences.
To obtain more knowledge about consumers’ behaviour and awareness of aquaponics products in different European regions, a mixed closed and open-ended questionnaire was constructed and distributed on the web. The questionnaire was applied to a European sample based on “convenience” through the aquaponics network of Food and Agriculture COST (European Cooperation in Science and Technology) Action FA1305 “The EU Aquaponics Hub—Realising Sustainable Integrated Fish and Vegetable Production for the EU” (COST action FA1305 “Aquaponics Hub”) and respective countries, which might represent a weakness of the present paper. Nevertheless, this paper presents the main results showing consumers’ knowledge of aquaponics and their attitudes towards aquaponics food products in comparison to local, organic and conventional food products at the European level.