With the farm-to-fork strategy, the European Union recognises the need to strengthen its food production systems. As demand for fish protein increases, researchers and innovators are called to action to develop more efficient, sustainable, and resilient approaches for aquaculture. AWARE, a recently financed European research project, has two words for it: Aquaponics and Wastewater.
“Imagine a wastewater treatment plant becoming a farm”, says AWARE coordinator Dr. Fabio Ugolini, “with the right technology, we can produce fish and vegetables in every city, at Km 0, with no soil or freshwater, and with no net greenhouse gas emissions”.
Wastewater in Europe undergoes rigorous treatment and becomes reclaimed water, which can be legally discharged back in the water table or be used for irrigation. However, if extra treatment steps are applied (Advanced Tertiary Treatments) reclaimed water becomes indistinguishable from drinking water.
“There is a regulatory gap in Europe: we can use reclaimed water for agriculture but not for aquaculture and aquaponics”, continues Dr. Fabio Ugolini, “we want to lay the ground for a new policy framework in support of European aquaculture, and demonstrate the feasibility of an entirely new food value chain”.
AWARE has an ambitious objective: build the first farm in Europe that uses reclaimed water in an aquaponic system. The pilot is being installed in the town of Castellana Grotte (Puglia, Italy) and is expected to open its doors to the public in 2026.
Castellana Grotte wastewater treatment plant is being prepped to host the pilot aquaponic farm, which will become a demonstrator and a case study for reclaimed water aquaponics.
|Picture 1: Aquaponics is the union of aquaculture (fish farming) with hydroponics (soilless plant farming). The system is sustainable-by-design as it recirculates and reuses its own waste products. Aquaponic farms exists at different scales, from the hobby-size system shown in the picture, to full-size commercial farms. Picture source: GreenInBlue (www.greeninblue.es/)
However, there are several challenges to face before the first fish can hit the plate: firstly, the reclaimed water must be devoid from all potentially harmful contaminants, including contaminants of emerging concern that are currently not regulated in the European Wastewater Directive; secondly, the aquaponic farm must yield fish and veggies that meet the most stringent safety and quality requirements; thirdly, the system must be sustainable from an environmental, social and economic perspective; lastly, the results must be strong enough to convince policymakers and consumers alike, of the benefits of using what originally was wastewater to produce edibles.
AWARE is an international effort of experts from 20 organisations including universities, research centres, companies, governmental institutions, and not-for-profits from 8 countries (Italy, Spain, Portugal, Germany, the UK, Belgium, Greece, and Chile). The project started in November 2022, and is expected to produce its results by 2026. AWARE has been financed by the European Union’s Horizon Europe Research and Innovation Actions programme under Grant Agreement n° 101084245, receiving €5.1 million including a co-financing from UK Research and Innovation (UKRI).
It was a sunny day in Castellana Grotte in February 2023 when the representatives from the AWARE partners surveyed the site which will host the aquaponic farm.
For more information: www.aware-eu.eu