Is Food Grown Hydroponically Organic? Should it Be?

Aquaponic System Oko Farms

It's not quite the "Rumble in the Jungle" - more like the "Rumble in the Field."

A major battle has been growing in the organic farming community over whether or not to let hydroponic and aeroponic farmers into the (soil-based) organics club. Hydroponic farming, considered one form of container farming, is growing plants in water. (When fish are added to the system, it's called aquaponics). Aeroponics is growing plants in air. Both forms of farming do not use soil and it's the soilless part that's causing all the heartburn.

Organizations on both sides of the issue were hoping that the conflict would be resolved when the National Organic Standards Board [NOSB] of the USDA met last month in St. Louis. Unfortunately, no decision was made and the topic was tabled, pending more research. Regardless, you're probably already buying hydroponically grown produce and some of that might very well have been certified organic.

Can Hydroponic Farms Be Organic?

In a word: maybe.

In 2010, the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) recommended that hydroponic systems are ineligible for organic certification "... due to their exclusions of the soil-plant ecology intrinsic to organic farming systems..." In other words, no soil, no organic certification. However, there have been exceptions to that ruling - some USDA-accredited certification agencies have certified some hydroponic operations, whereas others will not certify them - and there are currently over 100 foreign and domestic certified organic hydroponic and aquaponic producers.

At issue is the fact that organic certification requires specific management techniques that contribute to healthy soil that, in turn, provide nutrients to food. Hydroponics and aquaponics rely on circulating water systems that contain fertilizer for the plants, often from compost or from fish. Plants are grown on rafts that support the plants and allow the roots to grow into the water below, or are raised in a growth medium that provides a nutrient-rich environment.

The Cornucopia Institute Files a Complaint

In November, industry watch-dog the Cornucopia Institute filed a formal complaint with the USDA about several of the biggest certified organic hydroponic operations, stating that producers - including Driscoll's and Wholesum Harvest - "fail to meet the crop production requirements as specified in both OFPA [the Organic Food Production Act] and the USDA's organic standards" - especially the requirements for crop rotation and cover crops. According to the suit, "Crop fertility in container systems depends primarily on added synthetic soluble nutrients, such as micronized fish and hydrolyzed soy delivered through water, rather than the fertility coming primarily from the organic content of the soil." No ruling has been made yet.

In its report to the NOSB, the Hydroponics Task Force recognized that, since 2010, "...container, greenhouse and hydroponic growing practices have significantly increased and intensified as commercial growing methods," and, "...the increasing industry movement towards controlled growing systems has further created the need for USDA guidance on this matter." Unfortunately, the NOSB failed to issue such guidance at their meeting, instead sending it back to the task force to clarify some issues relating to the containers.

The Future of Hydroponic Farms

Regardless of their organic status, hydroponics and similar types of farming are here to stay and the industry is growing rapidly. The hydroponic food industry is outpacing global food production growth by 80 percent.

This isn't surprising given the benefits, which can include higher yields with lower land, water, fossil fuel and fertilizer inputs compared to conventional, soil-based agriculture. There are downsides though that relate primarily to energy use and include the energy required to heat or cool the system (depending on the location), lighting costs if it's an indoor system, as well as initial start-up costs, which can be significant in some circumstances. Nevertheless, given the impacts of conventional agriculture on soil and water quality, hydroponic farming seems primed to take on a significant role in providing food for a growing global population,

As with all farming techniques, we must take care to produce food in a way that does the least damage to the planet. And while the debate rages on about how nutritious and tasty hydroponically produced food is, in the end it's consumers voting with their dollars who ultimately decide whether they will support hydroponic and other similar forms of farming.

Whether you're after personal health or a healthy environment, hydroponic farming is just one more menu choice to consider in your quest for a sustainable future.