The results of this study were developed by weaving together the findings of the three distinct research methods. The various acronyms used to identify the quotes are as follows, FG#1–3 for the focus groups, KI#1–18 for the key informant interviews, and SA#1–7 for the scenario analyses. This section has been divided into two parts, Part 1 focuses on the perception of aquaponics, while Part 2 covers the urban planning aspects of the results.
3.1. Part 1: Perception of Aquaponics
Two-thirds of the focus group participants were completely unfamiliar with aquaponics, and of those who were familiar, only three participants considered themselves experienced. Initial reactions to aquaponics ranged from positive, through neutral or uncertain, and to simple dislike, as evident from the following quotes:
“The aesthetics of the backyard systems are exciting” FG#1 and “I like the experimental side.”
“Seems to have the scope to scale up, so why hasn’t it happened?” FG#1 and “I’d really miss the earth and all the things that are in the earth that feed my plants.”
“I think my honest gut reaction is suspicion” FG#3 and “[I’m] interested in looking at a future of energy constraints; aquaponics looks very energy and material based.”
The focus group participants were asked to put forward their own opinions of the strengths and weaknesses of aquaponics. Their opinions varied from the ‘technical’ literature based strengths and weaknesses, being more concerned with the ease of operation and how aquaponics may be perceived (Table 1
Although the discussion topics ranged considerably, the perceived weaknesses received the most attention. The persistent concern over the barriers to aquaponics was particularly evident during analysis of focus group data. Whenever a focus group participant commented on the expansion of aquaponics, their comment was categorised into one of the following topics: ‘Benefits or Value of Aquaponics’, ‘Barriers to Aquaponics’, or ‘Business Related Expansion’. Content analysis of these three topics revealed that there were 395 mentions of ‘Barriers to Aquaponics’, 271 mentions of ‘Business Related Expansion’, and only 113 mentions of ‘Benefits or Value of Aquaponics’.
When aquaponics was first introduced to focus group and interview participants, the majority were unfamiliar or unsure, and all had questions about various aspects of how the technology works. Out of 14 barriers identified against or preventing adoption of aquaponics, the top four were: ‘Negative preconceptions’ (n = 17 out of 18 interviews), ‘Ethics around fish’ (n = 15), ‘Suitability’ (n = 14), and ‘Aesthetics’ (n = 11). These top four barriers were also present in all three focus group sessions.
Further analysis of the negative preconceptions found that every negative comment, with one exception, either reflected a lack of awareness, understanding, and experience (n = 12), or related to a lack of current examples of viable aquaponics businesses (n = 7). This suggests that it is a lack of familiarity and understanding of such systems that holds people back from easy acceptance of the technology. Without widely visible examples of successful aquaponics enterprises, there is currently little opportunity for people to familiarise themselves with the technology.
Participants were very interested in the fish production side of aquaponics systems. The ‘Fish Ethics’ topic (n = 16, FG = 3) included concerns of whether it was right to grow fish intensively, and stories of people having something go wrong with their aquaponics system and having many (or all) the fish die. Others asked about the particular species suitable for Adelaide and what you would feed them. In one focus group this led to a discussion of the environmental sustainability of using fishmeal to grow fish.
The consideration of ‘Suitability’ not only related to the suitability of the fish species or the temperature for Adelaide’s climate, but was also concerned with the cultural suitability of aquaponics. Cultural suitability included gardening type preference, whether fish is part of a peoples’ cultural diet, and potential stigma around the consumption or taste of freshwater fish when compared with saltwater species.
Aesthetics of the systems was a stronger concern than originally expected (n = 11, FG = 3). The artificial or constructed appearance of the aquaponics systems discouraged some people. Some participants asked if the systems could be naturalized, and commented that they would happily have a ‘pretty’ system such as the example photo of one encased in timber (Figure 2
), but not one with lots of pipes showing. Having the system fit into the look of their backyard came across as a strong factor in participants’ willingness to add aquaponics to their existing garden.
3.1.2. Benefits or Value
There were five perceived benefits and values of aquaponics, the top being ‘Diversity’ (n = 16, FG = 3). Less frequently mentioned, but still within the top three were, ‘Water and nutrient cycling’ (n = 13, FG = 2), and ‘Size’ (n = 11, FG = 2).
The apparent diversity of the technology appealed to most of the participants (n = 16, FG = 3). Discussion on this included some systems’ modular design and small adaptable size, thus potentially suitable if renting (FG#1). Participants thought of many possibilities for aquaponics: to grow food on contaminated or under-utilized land (n = 7, FG = 3), to use the water cycling to help clean a dam (KI#9), for very isolated rural communities (KI#4), for school education (KI#11), and to assist in breeding endangered native fish species for conservation, for example, Murray Cod (Maccullochella peelii) an iconic and threatened species in Australia (KI#10).
The cycling of the nutrients and much of the water (although not a closed loop cycle) was appreciated by many participants (n = 13, FG = 2). This could possibly be for its likeness to a natural system, suiting some of the participants’ sustainable values. The appeal of saving water in South Australia (the driest state in Australia) was also mentioned (FG#1, KI#1, and KI#18).
3.1.3. Business Considerations
When asked what scale of an aquaponics business the focus group participants thought would be the most successful, two scales were selected: small-scale niche (FG = 3) and larger wholesale selling (FG = 3). Each focus group discussed the appropriateness of having a series of scales. These scales were presented in each key informant interview for further discussion. When asked to consider the merits and weaknesses of each model, the idea of an aquaponics business evoked 16 different considerations from participants. The top five concerns were: ‘Need to do serious business research first’ (n = 15), ‘Marketing and brand perception’ (n = 14), and then equally, ‘Aquaponics story value’ (n = 12) and ‘Community and family education’ (n = 12), and finally, ‘Need demonstrations of aquaponics’ (n = 12). These responses are broadly reflective of the social barriers identified earlier.
The need for serious business research covered everything from start-up costs, acceptable time to break-even, volume of production per system, the intensity of production, what kind of support you would need, and whether to consider value adding. Participants wanted all the details available before they would consider it.
Quite a few participants suggested demonstrations of aquaponics (n = 12) for people not only to become familiar with the technology, but also to help overcome some of the negative perceptions, and to assist in community and family education (n = 12), as evident in the following quote:
“I think people need to touch and feel and smell. They need to see it working. To get close to it, to understand it.”
The marketing and brand perception of such a business, especially whether or not it was possible to tell the difference between produce grown traditionally or with aquaponics, was also a strong consideration:
“If I went to a farmers’ market and there was a lettuce for sale, could I distinguish between one grown using aquaponics or conventionally? If trying to sell it—as a consumer, why would I choose one over the other?”
There were many potential marketable points raised: local production (FG#3, KI#3, KI#6, and KI#14), water efficiency (FG#1, KI#9, and KI#18), and freshness (KI#3 and KI#14). Value of the story was closely tied to brand perception. This would be how those trying to sell their produce could attempt to engage and connect with potential buyers (n = 12):
“Selling the story. Differentiated, e.g., selling Kingfish to Sydney restaurants. I had to say why it was special and only available through here… …You’re selling food, not a fish.”
There were many business structure ideas promoted with some variations on similar themes. These ideas are assembled into a variable scale of business deployment, presented in Table 2
. They range from backyard sizes to large-scale wholesale. Small-scale niche market and wholesale commercial market sizes were considered the most potentially competitive commercially.
The success of UA at the niche market scale is dependent on selling at retail prices direct to consumers, otherwise the economies of scale are not viable. By selling direct, this strengthens the importance of a marketing strategy that makes the most of settings where connection can take place, such as a farmers’ market. To make this link work in practice, however, the “story” is critical—people will not buy from a stall at a farmers’ market if they do not like the producer’s story. Selling produce in such a public place also ensures the opportunity for demonstrations and education of the people there in order to allow them to better understand and appreciate the produce. Hence, the social and community perceptions identified in this study have flow-on implications for the viable formation of a story, to producer-consumer connections, to retail pricing structure, and finally leading to a niche business model.
Consideration of starting an aquaponics business at the wholesale scale raised the idea of doing so with a commercial partner to make the most of their existing setup (n = 8, FG = 1). The aquaponics business would benefit from the existing structures and the business could use aquaponics as a point of difference in sales (KI#10).
There were also concerns for the production volume and consistency necessary for a wholesale business (n = 4, FG = 1). Although some did think that once you had the production volume consistent that it could be a more dependable market than the niche scale market (KI#6, KI#15, and FG#1).
Another business design put forward was that of an aquaponics social enterprise (n = 6, FG = 3). These participants thought that a network of people could work collaboratively on a larger scale project to develop their own brand and share in the profits. The other persistent idea linked aquaponics social enterprise to social justice and community capacity building with two options. Firstly, as an ‘Unemployment Work Program’ type setup where those receiving public financial support could contribute their time in exchange for skill development and produce vouchers for some of the produce grown, and secondly, as a ‘Youth Training Program’, which was described as particularly valuable for suburbs with high youth unemployment rates, such as Salisbury and Playford in Adelaide (KI#11).
3.1.4. Scaled Guidelines
The participants’ desire for serious logistical business considerations, combined with the many potential structures for aquaponics systems, culminated in the idea that a set of scaled guidelines is needed (n = 7, FG = 2). Such guidelines would include financial, logistical, production volumes, time requirements etc. for each scale from backyard (for one or two families), community-sized (for a community garden or collective), niche market size, social enterprise, or large commercial operation. It should be noted that currently backyard aquaponics systems are the most common form of aquaponics in Australia [12
]. However, having this background business information prepared would mean that any individual, community group, business, or council considering any kind of aquaponics system could browse this information and make a more confident decision than is currently possible.
Focusing on the different purposes of the aquaponics structures differs from previous considerations of aquaponics system viability. Goodman [15
] researched inclusion of community benefits in addition to the financial feasibility of aquaponics businesses. Goodman [15
] determined the net income of one small, one medium, and one large sized aquaponics business, and found that the likelihood of these businesses generating profit purely from the aquaponics production of fish and plants was slim. The odds did improve if the purpose of the system was for more than just financial profit, for example, if also for community benefit, such as Growing Power in Milwaukee. Goodman [15
] made recommendations for cost-cutting: vertical integration (producing necessary inputs onsite; e.g., grow worms for fish food), getting things for free, and diversifying revenue streams. These are all suitable options for the smaller scaled aquaponics systems, such as niche market selling or social enterprise.
3.2. Part 2: Urban Planning
3.2.1. Focus Group and Interview Responses to Urban Food Planning
Of the focus group and interview participants actively involved in growing food in Adelaide, all of them alluded to a lack of Council support when asked about their experiences with urban planning. This belief was exemplified in the following quote:
“I think it’s much better just to fly under the radar as long as you can.”
When asked if (and how) current urban food planning could be improved, many recommendations were made. The top six suggestions were: ‘Importance of top-down government support or a positive stance’ (n = 17), ‘Value of smart urban planning’ (n = 14) and ‘Use of different planning tools to support UA’ (such as incentive schemes) (n = 14), ‘Need to provide space for UA’ (n = 13), ‘Adopt planning examples from other cities or countries’ (n = 13), and ‘Dependency of urban food planning on individual local Council’ (n = 13).
3.2.2. Top Down Support
The idea, and apparent necessity of top down support was best described by one participant, an environmental policy lecturer:
“If the government supports something or doesn’t, there can be a policy vacuum. You have to have a high-level policy position. From these you can build programs and under them particular projects. But you need the driver up top.”
There have been previous calls for strong top level support (federal and state) of urban food planning, both in the US [37
] and in Australia [38
]. When questioned whether they thought this support should come from state or federal level, more participants agreed with state support (n = 13), over federal (n = 3). Two current plans that could be expected to make some reference to UA in South Australia are the 30-Year Plan for Greater Adelaide, and the Premium Food and Wine from our Clean Environment Initiative.
In 2010, the South Australian Government published the 30-Year Plan for Greater Adelaide. A submission on the draft Plan by the Planning Institute of Australia (SA Division) commented on what they called unresolved conflict between the Plan’s designs for a compact, transit-oriented city, with protection of primary food production land, and the land supply for housing development growth [19
]. One interview participant, a Community Development Officer, had noticed how the Plan discusses green space but not urban food.
The Planning Institute’s submission also pointed out that there is only a single policy (Chapter D, Health and Wellbeing, Policy 3) that mentions protection of some food production areas. Upon further reading, it was noticed that one other policy (Chapter D, Health and Wellbeing, Policy 2) does vow to promote the development of community gardens, albeit only for “social interaction and physical wellbeing” (Government of South Australia 2010, p. 101), and not for production capability or food security.
Another state level plan is the Premium Food and Wine from Our Clean Environment Initiative. When asked whether this program, which is assisted and implemented in part by PIRSA (Primary Industries and Regions South Australia), only supported the large-scale producers, one participant responded:
“In terms of the farmers themselves, if you’re small-scale, PIRSA helps in terms of over-arching policies and things but doesn’t get involved in the day to day… So if you’re small, you either become a member of a body that can represent you or you just do your own thing and not worry about anyone else.”
Currently there appears to be no top-down support in place for small-scale producers if they are not interested in joining an association, or selling interstate or overseas. Further, the university-driven Extension function is not institutionalized in Australia, although the state’s reputation for gourmet and quality food production means marketing initiatives such as Eat Local SA, Brand SA, and tourism food trails bolster awareness of point-of-purchase options. If aiming for a more cohesive approach to food security, UA, and urban food planning, some acknowledgement or policy support for the small-scale UA in South Australia needs to be made.
3.2.3. Improving Urban Food Planning
Every interview participant, bar one, explicitly expressed a desire for a supportive stance by Government and Council on UA. They valued well designed urban planning and mentioned numerous planning tools to assist in supporting UA, as well as mentioning a number of international examples and examples from other Australian cities. That the acceptability of UA activities depended heavily on each individual Council was a common perception (n = 13, FG = 2). The most positive Council attitude expressed towards UA was that of Adelaide City Council:
“[We] already have a big push for ‘Place Making’ where the community leads the way and the Council works to support them in their endeavours and provide a little bit of structure and just make sure it’s safe.”
This idea of the Council providing some structure and safety while not impeding on any community engagement is a promising one, especially in light of a recent review of Australian cities released in February [20
], which found Adelaide City to be lacking in ‘Sense of Place’. Sense of place is built on local economic development and place-based social capital, where UA fits due to its strong ties to physical inhabitation [25
Study participants were aware of the difficulty in attempting to manage and implement guidelines or policies, and did not overlook the complicated nature of growing food and selling it in public places. Because of this, some doubted that councils would be the ones to take the first step:
“I think it’s going to be more push than pull as in the community is going to have to push the council into asking for space rather than the council being proactive and saying ‘we’re going to give you this’.”
3.2.4. Scenario Analysis
The perception of focus group and interview participants that urban food planning depends on each individual LGA was further explored through the scenario analyses.
There was very little consensus on each of the seven hypothetical scenarios put to the seven selected LGAs. There were also some policy vacuums where the council employee did not provide an answer on the acceptability of that UA activity, as there was no policy to cover such an instance.
The following quotes exemplify the pro-, uncertain, and anti-positions of the Councils. There was complete support for community driven UA, such as from Prospect Council:
“This sort of thing keeps the food local which is good. Food security is associated with your environmental footprint, so we want to encourage people to keep it local.”
Prospect Council has a proactive approach to vegetable growing on street verges with their Veggie Verges Project, to actively promote ownership of the streetscape and encourage neighbour interaction. They also have online poultry guidelines, no issue with fish ponds or bees, think home businesses are acceptable if small, would consider fruit street trees on a case-by-case basis, and already have a community garden that sells its produce at a local market.
In contrast to Prospect, an inner-city area with a relatively high socio-economic status, there was uncertainty and concern for complaints with Tea Tree Gully Council, an outer suburb with a lower socio-economic status:
“We don’t get too involved in growing food… Unfortunately bound by legislation with little room to move. If there is a justified complaint then that must result in instant action.”
When questioned about the acceptability of residents growing food on the public verges in front of their houses, Tea Tree Gully Council was concerned for the possible health risk of the soil, and of food being grown in a public space. As part of a resident’s application to request approval for doing so, the details of the particular plants planned must be included. It was commented that listing vegetables on an application would diminish the resident’s chances of approval. Tea Tree Gully include the keeping of poultry in their local order making policy, in addition to having an online poultry fact sheet for residents to access. Fishponds of any size would be considered an issue and any attempt to sell fish would be shut down. Bees are listed as nuisance animals within Tea Tree Gully, and fruit trees are never considered for street trees.
There was some evidence of outright discouragement for certain aspects of UA, as with Mitcham Council, a suburb with a relatively high socio-economic status:
“The Council no longer considers any community garden proposal to be established on Council property for the life of the Council.”
Mitcham Council has several guidelines in place, but instead of simple guidelines to support particular UA activities, their guidelines tend to stipulate a large number of particulars and have long application procedures. Their online guidelines for poultry keeping are twice as long as (and more detailed than) any other Council. No mention of fish or ornamental ponds is made on their website. Mitcham Council has online bee guidelines seemingly intent on discouraging bee keeping, as hives are not allowed within 50 m of any home, road, or public place, thus making hive placement almost impossible in the suburban area.
Each LGA’s policy position was tagged as encourage, discourage, or neutral. The policy framework of each Council contributed to this classification, with consideration of associated by-laws and actions towards UA. Three Councils (Adelaide, Prospect, and Norwood, Payneham, and St. Peters) actively encouraged UA development. One Council (Mitcham) actively discouraged UA activities. Three Councils (Salisbury, Charles Sturt, and Tea Tree Gully) had mixed responses to the scenarios and so were tagged more than once. Multiple tags could be an indication of the lack of holistic approach and management of UA, and reveal how each UA activity is judged individually rather than as part of a greater urban food planning framework.
The range of responses to the UA scenarios relating to aquaponics, mainly the fishponds, the community gardens, and the running of a small home business selling home-grown produce, are displayed in Table 3
. For aquaponics, in addition to social barriers, there are likely to be mixed responses to wider uptake of aquaponics either at backyard small-scale, niche commercial, or as a social enterprise. However, there is not a universal barrier to aquaponics across LGAs, and there may be tentative support from some councils. In order to increase the awareness and cohesion of local UA policies across Adelaide, either the state could take a supportive stance, or people living in particular LGAs discouraging UA could communicate their desire for change.