Aquaponics is an integrated system with both hydroponic plant production and aquaculture fish production. Methods of operation and system design can vary greatly depending on the environment and the production goals. Typically, water with fish waste flows to a biofilter for solid removal and oxidation of inorganic nitrogen compounds by nitrifying bacteria (Nitrospira sp., Nitrobacter sp., and Nitrosomonas sp.). The plant roots use the resulting nitrate, and nutrient-free water returns back to the fish. Given the right conditions, aquaponics has the potential to be a sustainable system of food production that can be implemented at a variety of different scales and at locations not traditionally suited for agriculture (Somerville et al., 2014). The opportunities and challenges regarding the sustainability of aquaponic systems have been well documented (Tyson et al., 2011).
A recent technical report from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) details some of the possible benefits of aquaponic systems compared with conventional agriculture and fisheries. These include the potential to take pressure off land conversion, increase the world supply of fish without depleting wild stocks, produce food in areas with minimal water supply, and enable food production by urban residents (Somerville et al., 2014). When grown in a controlled environment like a greenhouse or warehouse, products can be harvested year-round, making locally grown produce available even in cold climates during winter (Savidov, 2004); however, many key questions about the overall feasibility of aquaponic production remain unanswered. Of particular concern for start-up and established producers alike are the consumer perceptions and willingness to pay for aquaponic produce and fish.
A small number of studies have examined the economic feasibility of aquaponic production systems (Bailey et al., 1997; Baker, 2010; Rupasinghe and Kennedy, 2010; Tokunaga et al., 2015) and even fewer studies have investigated consumer perceptions and marketing potential for fish and produce grown with aquaponic production methods (Savidov, 2004; Tamin et al., 2015; Zugravu et al., 2016).
More studies exist on consumer perceptions of other alternative agriculture production methods such as local, organic, and hydroponics. Feldmann and Hamm (2015) provide a review of 73 publications examining consumer perceptions and preferences for local food with a major finding that unlike organic food, local food is not perceived as expensive, but consumers will also pay more for local foods. For local foods, consumers are motivated to purchase by perceptions of freshness and safety as well as a desire to support the local economy (Yue and Tong, 2009).
Organic foods also command a premium price, although the proportion of consumers who will pay a premium decreases as the premium level increases (Yiridoe et al., 2005). Reasons consumers buy organic products include their perceptions of healthfulness, environmental friendliness, taste, freshness, and quality of the food, as well as a desire to avoid genetically modified ingredients (Demeritt, 2002). The price premiums for organic foods also tend to increase with combinations of preferred attributes (Yiridoe et al., 2005). In a review of the literature on consumer perceptions and preferences for organic foods compared with conventionally grown food, Yiridoe et al. (2005) found that the demand is more dependent on the price differential between organic and conventional food than the actual price of the organic food (Yiridoe et al., 2005).
It is possible that consumers’ perceptions of aquaponic products might contain some of the same appealing attributes as organic and local production; however, studies focused on choices consumers make at farmers’ markets have revealed that consumers expect lower prices and better quality of these local products (Brown, 2002, 2003). As the collection of the aforementioned studies show, the connection between preferences, perception, and willingness-to-pay is not straightforward and depends on a number of factors including specific combinations of attributes and the price and availability of alternatives.
Regarding hydroponic production, a Nashville, Tennessee market analysis found limited potential for hydroponic lettuce (Lactuca sativa), although the prospects for hydroponic cucumber (Cucumis sativus) and tomato (Solanum lycopersicum) were better. The study concluded that hydroponic lettuce producers would need to establish a wholesale relationship and use a “push strategy” to develop a customer base (Huang et al., 2002). A more recent study found that consumers in Trinidad were, on average, willing to pay a 4% premium for greenhouse-hydroponic tomatoes (Narine et al., 2014). Among those willing to pay more (51% of their sample), the average was a 30% premium over conventional field-grown tomatoes. Those not willing to pay more for greenhouse-hydroponic tomatoes (49%) required an average discount of ≈24% of the conventional price to be persuaded to purchase. The split among those willing/not willing to pay a premium in the Trinidad study (Narine et al., 2014) is similar to the split found in the Canadian aquaponics survey (Savidov, 2004) and has important implications for the industry moving forward.
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