Wednesday, September 26, 2012

The Perils Of Complex Systems

I’ve been meaning to write about this for a while.

There is a tendency on the part of some to see things like aquaponics systems, urban farms, foodscrapers, and the like as some sort of salvation to our troubled economic and agricultural systems. One can fund such articles tinged with delirious optimism and breathless enthusiasm littering many of the pages of the Peak Oil blogosphere and ‘alternative’ press.  “Plentiful jobs producing fresh foods right in the city,” claim the proponents. The economy of the future. It’s an appealing vision to be sure. But does it square with reality?

In fact, the reality can often be quite different.

Enter Sweet Water Organics, an aquaponics facility; one of the largest in the country, right in my neighborhood. Recently, my local paper published a very long, very detailed expose about SWO. My city is justifiably proud of being considered an epicenter of the urban agriculture revolution, largely because of the work of one man – Will Allen of Growing Power, who is mentioned in the article. People naturally want to attract these businesses and want them to succeed as Growing Power has done (attracting among other things the attention of President Obama and a MacArthur ‘genius’ grant). Thus, criticizing such businesses is something done with great reluctance in the local press. Nevertheless, the article takes an unflinching look at the troubles Sweet Water has faced since its founding. It serves as a case study in how the best of intentions sometimes go awry and how difficult it is to actually make these ideas work from a financial and managerial standpoint. It’s also a cautionary tale of how seeing such things through the lens of starry-eyed idealism is often a recipe for failure.
    Last year, six employees departed the company, which wasn’t paying them and which they said wasn’t listening to them about how to make their systems more sustainable. Fish were dying. Greenhouses sat empty. The money, it seemed, had dried up. Then, with the help of Alderman Tony Zielinski, the city tossed Sweet Water and its skeleton crew a quarter-million-dollar life preserver. This year, back from the brink, the company is using that money to reinvent their systems based on the work of a Scottish aquaponics expert. These new outdoor systems, set to debut this month, once again dangle the lure of profitability…Sweet Water’s critics believe passionately in aquaponics. They believe that good science results in efficient systems. But they remain unconvinced that the soul of their former company’s management has changed for the better.

The article is quite long, and worth reading, but I’ll give you the executive summary. Sweet Water Organics was started by two roofers inspired by the small experimental aquaponics system Will Allen has installed in his Growing Power facility. The founders espoused a grand vision of bringing back the tradition of the local fish fry, which was once fuelled by the abundant perch found in lake Michigan, back to Milwaukee by converting the aged, abandoned and rusting industrial facilities dotting the city into food-producing fish farms. This was part of a larger vision of Milwaukee as a poster child for the new, futuristic post-industrial self-sufficient, food-based economy with industrial urban agriculture stepping into the place once occupied by industrial factory work. They began by converting a large abandoned former Harnishfeger factory building which they used for roofing material storage, taking advantage of the sunken concrete pits and building up extensive complex piping systems above them to cycle the water and grow the vegetables.

But they bit off a bit more than they could chew, and soon began experiencing sick fish, dead plants, and mass die-offs. Employees who believed passionately in the idea were hired, but soon became disgruntled as their suggestions were ignored. Mass burials of fish without permits attracted fire from employees and city officials. Strategic fish culls were made, and outside scientific expertise was brought in to advise. Money problems began mounting, and employees were not being paid.
    Theoretically, the aquaponics system is a closed loop with an optimal balance among fish, plants, and bacteria. Ideally, the nutrient-rich water itself does not leave the system except for evaporation and biological uptake. Dissolved fish waste fertilizes plants; and plants and bacteria clean the water for fish. That’s what makes the recirculating system closed. It’s like a mini ecosystem.

    Optimal ratios of plants and fish depend on multiple factors—pH, temperature, dissolved oxygen, fish feed, fish type, plant type, water volume, flow rates—but can be calculated for a given system. Load an aquaponics system with too many fish, too few plants, or too few bacteria, however, and nutrients become excessive. Instead of becoming a resource, waste builds up. The water chemistry becomes toxic. Bad things happen.

    “We were losing hundreds of fish per day,” recalled Hull, former director of horticulture, research, and development, who lamented the “inhumaneness” of the overcrowded system of fish. Hull said 1,700 “just died” during the winter before the loan application. He described fish swimming in their own waste, nipping at each other, and dying of asphyxiation.

    A veterinarian was called in over the objection of Fraundorf, according to Hull. “Josh stated that he didn’t want the vet called in, saying he’d rather keep ‘getting rid of the fish,’” Hull said. “At that time there was no money and no way to implement the humane and legal disposal of that many fish.”
“Approximately 15,000 tilapia, housed in a 9,000 gallon aquaponic recirculating system tank, had suffered a loss of greater than 1,500 fish in a two week period…” wrote veterinarian David M. Vandever of Innovative Veterinary Services of Franklin, Wis. “The findings suggest a plurality of stresses resulting in the poor vitality of this population.” The factors included poor water quality, using fish feed with too much protein, and high population density, the vet wrote. Some fish were even believed to be spawning in the tanks. In necropsies of five fish, the vet noted missing fins, inflamed gills, friable livers, and distended gall bladders.
Investors balked at the size of the operation and the money required to keep it going. The employees claimed inept management and jumped ship. Finally, the city stepped in and provided a large forgivable loan which came with the requirement that the business create forty full-time jobs within the next several years.
 Even with the public investment, a year later Sweet Water is still finding it difficult to secure private investment. “In answer to the question, ‘Are you adequately financed?’ the answer is not at this point in time,” Mervis said. Mervis said they hope to be adequately financed within the next year to 18 months, raising money both through additional equity offerings and through private and public equity sources.

“It’s still a challenge,” he acknowledged.
The owners along with the alderman who supported the loan came under further scrutiny when some claimed the loan money was used to pay the owners first and the delinquent back wages owed to the former employees (the claim was later proven false).

Now the owners are using the money to embark on new systems developed in England to try and bolster the business.
Last October for a week, Sweet Water brought in a rock star of the aquaponics world, Scotland’s Charlie Price, who operates his own consultancy, Aquaponics UK. Price recommended a totally new direction—in essence, shallower gravity-fed channels for more plants and smaller above-ground tanks with fewer fish.

Mervis called Price’s model a “quantum leap” in technology. Fraundorf called Price’s system “the best one on the planet.”
Former employees have been paid what little they were owed and are still withering in their criticism of mismanagement and deceptive advertising on the part of the owners. Others are skeptical whether the aquaponics idea was ever meant to scale the way it was at Sweet Water and whether the idealism and hype can live up to reality. Several other attempts to start similar businesses in the area are also profiled.
    [Former employees]depict a toxic work environment at Sweet Water in the second half of 2010 through early 2011 characterized by unpaid work, extremely low morale, and a deep disconnect between management and labor. They described a Sweet Water struggling to attract and retain private investors before their commercial-scale aquaponics systems were profitable. They also said their suggestions to improve Sweet Water’s systems were ignored or incompletely funded.
“Sustainability is not the hook in a business proposal—it is a term used to describe the practices of a company that is fighting for change and to supply a healthy future for a community. In no way has the leadership shown any interest in creating a better living for anyone other than themselves.”
Of course, this is just one isolated case, but there are several lessons to be drawn from this. One is that for all the logic and benefits of an idea, in the hard calculus of the current economic environment, many of these ideas just aren’t viable. Look, we all want these ideas to succeed. But we have to be realistic. The problem with certain people is that they tend be dreamers, but lack the heard-headed business savvy required to make such dreams a reality. Others claim that nothing will work besides the status quo, and that any new idea is not practical. Neither of these attitudes is helpful and will not serve us well in the difficult years ahead.  Unfortunately, there are too few instances of visionary dreamers and hard-nosed pragmatists working together to actually get things done, as we split into warring ideological camps.

Another is that these systems are enormously complex and prone to failure. You’ve got to really know what you’re doing, and there’s little margin for error. What if we depended on these systems for food and had no other recourse? This is what some advocates of many of these systems seem to be suggesting we do.
    “One of the key issues to make any aquaponics business sustainable,” Binkowski said, “is to have a team of skilled and experienced people running the operation—especially in the technical and scientific side.” —Fred Binkowski, UWM Great Lakes WATER Institute scientist
Another is that some ideas do not always scale appropriately. Sure you can do it in a garage or experimental facility. But what about larger? Can it go big?  Can you sell enough to make a profit? This was a major downfall of Sweet Water:
In fact, both Fraundorf and Mervis admit that they believe Sweet Water’s indoor systems—the wood structures of plant beds above tanks sawed into the concrete foundation of the former Harnischfeger crane factory—are not commercially scalable.These systems—which Fraundorf and Mervis now call Phases 1, 2, 3, and 4—were attempts to scale up Will Allen’s much smaller Growing Power aquaponics model, systems Mervis said depended on outside funding and were designed to provide the social benefit of local food.

“Although I have a great deal of respect for what Will Allen has done for the urban farming movement, the aquaponics systems that Growing Power employs are based on a decades-old design that could not have competed with commercial levels of production even then,” Hull said. “With utmost honesty, Will has stated at his own workshops that a person couldn’t make a profitable business using his aquaponic designs and methods.” Energy, infrastructure, and heating costs plus the aforementioned fish density and nutrient cycling issues make big, indoor centralized systems with insufficient area for plants less appealing, Fraundorf has discovered. “This, inside [indoor large Allen-style system in an old building], has its challenges and would not really be what I would recommend,” Fraundorf said.

Several summers ago for an unrelated story, the Compass spoke with Will Allen of Milwaukee’s Growing Power farm and asked him about Sweet Water, which was just then coming into vogue. Allen said Growing Power had been fish farming for 16 years and that the biggest challenge wasn’t constructing the systems but maintaining them. His advice then? Start small, learn the systems, then build bigger.
This is also something to keep in mind with all the new “miracle’ energy sources out there – algae-based fuels, biodiesel, ethanol, wind power, molten salt energy storage, fuel cells, electric cars etc. Can such ideas scale? Can they be maintained indefinitely? These small experiments are just that. But in the real world, many things can go wrong, from bankruptcy to mismanagement to unforeseen events. SWO's story offers us a cautionary tale.

But I think the main lesson is to note that Milwaukee sits on one of the largest fresh water lakes on the planet, and is crisscrossed with wide rivers and small ponds. Yet despite this, we cannot eat the fish in any of these abundant aquatic ecosystems and are forced to rely on farmed and imported fish. Need I point insanity  of setting up these complex systems in abandoned factory buildings in a city that is shot through with some of the most abundant fresh water sources on the face of the earth? I must, because nobody seems to get it. What if we could just, I don’t know use the lake and rivers for fish? How crazy is that? But we can’t because we’ve ruined them with pollution, possibly forever. Stories like Sweet Water’s illustrate the price we pay for that. What nature once provided for free we must now attempt to recreate at an enormous cost in energy, materials, complexity, etc. And this is true throughout society. This point is critical.

The idea of replacing healthy functioning ecosystems with technically complex, expensive, knowledge-intensive mechanical systems is inherently problematic and probably doomed to failure. SWOs story is a cautionary tale of the difficulties that are glossed over and ignored in the technophilists' embrace of vertical farms, lab-grown meat, GMO seeds, hydroponics, genetic engineering, ocean-surface farming and the like.

Maybe we should think about what it would take to clean up Lake Michigan and the Milwaukee river so that they can once again produce healthy, abundant fish for us to eat. Maybe we should think about reclaiming and restoring healthy, thriving ecosystems for growing our food before plowing ahead with the latest cutting-edge technology. We can do these things. Why don't we?

NOTE: This article is supplementary to this piece - Vertical Farms and Lab-Grown Meat: Have We Lost Our Minds?


  1. Exactly.

    But as the Simpsons solar train episode shows, shysters peddling hype seem to be irresistible to the rubes out there, both city aldermen and the greenish public alike.

    The problem goes deeper. :-)

    1. I think their intentions were good. I've met one of the people in the article before this venture started (sort of a local man-about-town) and he's a good guy. I just think they didn't do their homework and went in with a vision and not much else. Sadly, that's all to common among people who want to change the world (e.g. the organic farm that fails after the first bad harvest, etc.)

      The takeaway isn't to never try - it's to ground your plans to change the world in reality. It's to start small, and do what you can with what you have, as others have said.

      Unfortunately, I think people learned the wrong lessons from that episode.It's not that public transportation is snake oil (although a monorail is pretty silly). Public transportation is a proven technology that operates well all over the world. It's how Lyle Lanley did a shoddy job so that it fell apart as soon as he skipped town (and hired unqualified people, d'oh!). If anyone needs to watch this episode it's the Chinese.

    2. Well, that's the thing. It's not the monorail or the fish farms are necessarily bad ideas. It's the hype... and yes, once the hype attracts big funds, then it's the slippery slope to grandiosity and failure.

      I don't care if the hypesters are well meaning or ill meaning. It comes to the same thing in the end.

  2. There is a similar but more ambitious urban farm project like SWO in Chicago called The Plant which is building multiple aquaponics systems in a former meat packing building.

    1. Indeed, I mentioned it on my other, sadly-all-too-neglected blog Permaculture Cities:

      Industrial Reuse

      I hope their model works out. I just fear we're putting way too much stake in these things as cure-alls and neglecting the big picture.

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