Should hydroponically grown food be considered Organic?

After a lengthy and divisive battle that included protests where farmers sported signs saying “Keep the Soil in Organic”, on November 1st, 2017 the U.S. National Organic Standards Board voted that hydroponic gardens will remain eligible for organic certification. That’s a mouthful. Let us give you the 60 second overview:

What is hydroponic?

Hydroponic is the process of growing plants without soil. A typical hydroponic greenhouse is depicted below, as is an infograph on how the process works.

Hydroponic-Greenhouse-720

Hydroponic-infograph

Farmer side:

Several years ago, soil based farmers in the U.S. discovered that hydroponically grown produce was being produced and sold as Organic with no indication that such products were produced hydroponically. Their stance is that the roots of “Organic” (no pun intended) are deeply buried (again, no pun intended) in soil health.

Keep-the-soil-in-organic-720

They argue that organic food is about an entire ecosystem that starts with taking care of the soil, using crop rotation and animal pasturing to rejuvenate the nutrients naturally, and using natural pollinators and pest control. “It is a way for farming, which can often be ecologically destructive, to work with the planet.”[ref]

They argue that soil grown vegetables are both tastier and more nutritious. David Miskell of Miskell’s Premier Organics in Charlotte, Vermont a very early proponent of Organics stated “Growing soilless plants with force fed organic nutrients is a step backward. Perhaps it is a technological innovation, but not an organic innovation. Call it what you want, but it is not organic.”

High-tech side:

Facing off with the farmers are, I guess you can group them as, “high-tech” growers, including large agribusiness companies like Driscoll’s and Wholesum Harvest. They argue “organic” is based on inputs, and the essence of organic is feeding the plants clean nutrients while avoiding the use of chemical pesticides. They argue that hydroponic systems are more efficient, and more financially feasible to set up.

As of last week, they won the debate.

How does this apply to Canada?

At the present moment, it doesn’t. Hydroponic agriculture is specifically excluded from today’s Canadian Organic standards, and the current U.S.-Canada Organic Equivalence Arrangement explicitly states that “Agricultural products produced by hydroponic or aeroponic production methods shall not be sold or marketed as organic in Canada”.

That doesn’t mean that you won’t find hydroponically-grown produce labeled Organic in your grocery store today. In fact, the opposite is true but that is the result of a lack of enforcement on the regulations at the border when such products are imported. Hydroponic (as well as aquaponic) agriculture will no doubt be debated in Canada soon. What are your thoughts? Our opinion is that “Organic” has already been watered down enough and it needs to avoid being overly inclusive so that it can maintain a level of consumer confidence. Should hydroponic and aquaponic agriculture exist? Absolutely, and perhaps they can simply be labeled “Organic Hydroponic” and “Organic Aquaponic”.

For a more in-depth article, click here.

  • Brian Wheeler

    I think the simple answer is that organic needs to include a healthy soil system. One of the objectives of organic agriculture should be to heal the soil. That means the soil needs to be replenished in a sustainable system, not exhausted and abandoned. Hydroponic and aquaponic systems are entirely separate from organic agriculture and should not be labeled organic.