Can Hydroponic Farming Be Organic? The Battle Over The Future Of Organic Is Getting Heated - Modern Farmer

Can Hydroponic Farming Be Organic? The Battle Over The Future Of Organic Is Getting Heated

"This is like Soylent Green in the shape of a vegetable." Is it though?

Last month, the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) met in Denver, Colorado to discuss what might be the most hotly-debated subject in all of eco-agriculture: What, exactly, does “organic” mean?

The United States is unlike most countries (or regions, like the EU) in that our organic certification can legally be extended to crops that are not grown in soil. Hydroponic and aquaponic produce is, typically, grown in perpetually-flowing water in which nutrients are dissolved, and in the US, some farms using these methods can be certified organic. Proponents of the hydroponic organic certification say that their farms can be more energy- and water-efficient than soil-based farms, that they can reduce transportation costs by being built basically anywhere (including indoors, smack in the middle of cities), and that they can be just as sustainable and eco-friendly as any traditional farm.

The other side – the side that wants organic certification to be restricted to soil-based farms – sees hydroponic organics as a victory for a spooky sort of agriculture controlled by corporations that perverts the very soul of the organic movement.

What does the NOSB, which is in charge of actually making this decision, think? They’re not sure yet. They determined in Denver that they have more questions than answers, and that they’ll need more data before making any decision. For now, hydrorgranics remain legal.

[mf_h2 align=”left” transform=”uppercase”]First, some background[/mf_h2]

Hydroponics and other technologies like it have captured the imagination of farmers for decades; the technologies enable young farmers, increasing numbers of whom live in cities, to create hyper-local farms that actually produce solid yields. Some systems incorporate big fish tanks – tilapia is a popular choice – which are strung together with the plants to create an ad-hoc sort of ecosystem.

“It’s a very natural-type system,” says Marianne Cufone, executive director of the Recirculating Farms Coalition. “It’s mimicking nature, where the fish do what they do in the water to live and breathe, and they create nutrients in doing so, and those nutrients then are taken with the water to the plants, and the plants absorb the nutrients they need to live from the water, cleaning the water for the fish.” It is, basically, a high-tech artificial pond – a closed-loop system where the fish help the plants and the plants help the fish. And we can eat both the plants and the fish.

These sorts of farms are gaining traction; most cities have a few. Many of them are too small to really be commercial – maybe they’re educational farms, maybe they’re startup-y experiments, maybe they’re an outpost of a restaurant or other facility that doesn’t rely on the farm as a sole source of income. Fact is, they’re popping up more and more.

Cufone represents these farmers, who put a lot of energy into making sure their farms are sustainable and ecologically sound. They reduce their water and energy use as far as possible, they use only accepted fertilizers and nutrients, and if they must use pesticide they’ll only use accepted organic varieties. Describing her own farm, Cufone says, “We have an open-air system, so we have natural pests and natural pest controls. We have bees and butterflies and helpful insects that keep away pests and so forth.”

In her view, Cufone and farmers like her embody the spirit of sustainability and responsibility that customers look for in an organic product.

[mf_h2 align=”left” transform=”uppercase”]…But not everyone agrees[/mf_h2]

“I feel bad for those [small] operations, that they’re getting wrapped up in this debate, but they are not the problem,” says Linley Dixon. Dixon is the chief scientist for the Cornucopia Institute, a group that represents small farmers and has become a major voice in opposition to hydro-organics. Cornucopia firmly believes that the organic certification should go only to farmers who grow in soil.

Their argument against hydro-organic agribusiness is multi-fold. First is their belief in the inherent superiority of soil-grown produce. Kastel repeatedly cited the superior flavor and nutritional content of soil-grown vegetables. (That last part is up for debate; there’s yet to be scientific consensus on whether organic food is more nutritious than conventional food. The former claim varies based on crop.) Cornucopia also believes that the concept – the soul, if you will – of organics isn’t just about the singular crop: it’s about the the ecosystem, the environment, and the planet. Proper soil-based organics ensures healthy soil for generations, allows for thriving communities of beneficial insects, and, in turn, an entire ecosystem around them. Organics is about the planet beyond the pepper, they say.

It’s probably worth pointing out here that Cornucopia repeatedly claims hydro-organic farms are “illegal,” while the hydro people repeatedly state that they’re following the letter of the law. Frankly, it’s too much of a tangle to go into: both sides make compelling legal arguments, but the real battle is not really about which side is, say, bending to abstraction a bunch of minor rules about nutrient sourcing – it’s about money and soul. But probably mostly money.

“This is like Soylent Green in the shape of a vegetable.” – Mark Kastel, cofounder of Cornucopia.

Cornucopia made it a point to say that they approve in spirit of small, sustainable hydro producers like Cufone; they think that stuff is cool, or at least cute. But they do not believe it should ever be labeled organic.

The organic label is worth about $40 billion a year. It is monstrously huge business, which is the only reason many farmers put up with the equally huge amounts of red tape it takes to actually get the certification. An organic farmer can charge as much as twice the price for the same item – and work very hard for the ability to do so. So while the organic standards were designed to reward the most conscientious of farmers, what it’s also done is entice less-conscientious corporations into hitting the bare minimum in order to rake in that sweet organic cash. This is all legal at the moment, keep in mind; Cornucopia is fighting to strengthen the restrictions on organic farmers, in a way that would box out those who, in their mind, are unworthy of the organic label.

The chief villains, to Dixon and Cornucopia, aren’t small timers, like rooftop farms in Brooklyn or progressive vertical projects in Chicago. It’s gigantic agribusiness corporations, chiefly Wholesum Harvest and Driscoll’s. Both of those companies have gigantic organic hydroponic businesses, selling tomatoes, cucumbers, squash, peppers, and berries, which are grown, in some capacity, in hydroponic greenhouses. “It’s almost science fiction, Dan, to say that we want all of our food grown in these hermetically-sealed buildings,” Mark Kastel, the cofounder of Cornucopia. told me. “This is like Soylent Green in the shape of a vegetable.” Kastel believes that these companies are not in the spirit of the organic movement and are thus deceiving customers who have a vision of organic produce coming from ethical farmers, harvested by ethical farmers in ethical overalls covered in ethical dirt.

Hydro-organics often does not include any outside interaction with the planet at all, being less spooky than Kastel thinks they are but no less hermetically sealed. When I presented that to Cufone, she protested. “Not all aquaponic systems are entirely closed,” she says. “For example, the system that we run, we take some of the solid fish waste out and use it on in-ground growing. A lot of people do multiple forms of growing on a farm.” But the current law doesn’t require any of that to earn the certification.

“I think adding new labels dilutes the USDA organic label, and I also think the whole ‘separate but equal’ thing hasn’t worked so well in the United States over the years.” – Marianne Cufone, Executive Director, Recirculating Farms Coalition

The bigger argument is about money, as the end of most arguments are. It is extremely easy for a hydroponic farm to transition to organic; all they need to do, as Kastel says, “is turn a valve.” (Basically, just replace any banned nutrients or fertilizers with permitted ones.) Turning a conventional soil-based farm into an organic farm is much, much more involved; you have to allow the soil to recover for three years before you can call your food organic.

That enables big business like Wholesum Harvest to pump their low-cost organics into the market, boxing out smaller, older producers. And there’s no way to tell the difference between hydro-organics and soil-based organics; there’s only one label, and it just says “certified USDA organic.”

[mf_h2 align=”left” transform=”uppercase”]What about a new label?[/mf_h2]

I offered a few possible solutions to this issue, all of which…failed. What about a totally new label, I asked both Cufone and the folks from Cornucopia? Say, USDA Certified Sustainable Hydro, with totally new rules for what makes a truly sustainable and ecologically-friendly hydro farm. Has a nice ring to it, right? Cornucopia said sure, who cares, they can do whatever they want. Cufone, though, wasn’t into it.

“No,” she said flatly. “Because USDA organic is the thing, it’s the thing that consumers know, and I think it’s really important for it to be the significant label in the United States. I think adding new labels dilutes the USDA organic label, and I also think the whole ‘separate but equal’ thing hasn’t worked so well in the United States over the years.” Whoof.

Okay, how about this genius idea of mine: USDA Organic Hydro. Again, separate rules, and a new label, but it has the word “organic” in there. Cufone thought this was a great idea. The Cornucopia people, not so much.

“It’s pretty telling that they want to steal our word,” says Dixon. Cornucopia does not want any farm besides a traditional operation wherein crops are planted in the Earth to have access to the word “organic,” in any way. That includes hydroponics, aquaponics, rooftop farming, container farming, all of it. “We’ve worked really hard for this word, and it means something, and they want it, and it’s not theirs,” says Dixon. “Let them build it for 30 years, like the organic farmers did.”

For Cornucopia, any use of the “organic” word is, yes, a perversion, but also not enough of a differentiation; considering how lousy the state of agricultural education is in this country, Cornucopia worries that people won’t much care about the difference between “organic” and “organic hydro.” And then they’re in the same position they’re in now: being boxed out by a bunch of techy corporations.

[mf_h2 align=”left” transform=”uppercase”]So where do we go from here?[/mf_h2]

There is no conclusion on the future of organics. It is a complete mess. Without proper education to ensure that customers know or care about the difference between conventional, organic, hydroponic, sustainable hydroponic, and who knows what else, as well as stricter rules to ensure that those labels actually mean what customers think they mean? We’re stuck with basically what we have, which is kind of a free-for-all.

Both sides have a point; both the Cornucopia folks and Cufone want the farmers they represent to be recognized and paid for her dedication to sustainability. How to ensure they both get what they deserve? There’s no real solution. That’s what the NOSB is grappling with. As to when they’ll make a decision? Any decision at all? We have no idea.

Notify of

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Most Voted
Newest Oldest
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Jimmy Lotufo
5 years ago

I believe that Organic certification needs to be limited to soil farming because that is the basis of being certified to begin with. I also believe in establishing a separate certification for commodities grown as Hydroponic highlighting the unique benefits such as lower carbon footprint, locally grown, and pre and post harvest benefits to the consumer. Having a clear message to end user understanding of what is being purchased is vital and creates value to the supply chain.

The Earth Protector environmental group, based in Minnesota, supports organically grown food whether in soil, water, or air.

Anna Roblin
5 years ago

I think it should depend on whether the liquid nutrients and everything else they’re grown with are healthy or risky.

4 years ago

Organic growing should be for everyone, no matter the medium. When you look at the “pure” purpose of it in the first place, it is growing without toxic chemicals. When you limit your eyesight to just “dirt”, you limit most locations. After 50-100+ years of farming that utilized the worst-of-the-worst chemicals for pesticides and fertilizers, you deem that soil unusable for growing food for generations to come. As we continue to add population, we have less suitable soil to grow in. Let’s welcome ANY organic growing method regardless of media with open arms and an open mind, because the real… Read more »

George C Kalogridis
5 years ago

Non-soil organic farming has been with us since the first organic standards were codified in the late 1980’s. (Sprouts & Mushrooms) There are also growing regions that have little or no-soil for farming; Homestead FL is nothing but coral rock broken into gravel. The organic community decided in the 80’s that everyone should be allowed to farm organically if they follow the regulations. A small vocal group has always objected, wanting organic to be prescriptive instead of open to farmer experimentation. Many of the Purist of the 80’s are now involved in the soil-only movement, now they’ve chosen Hydro and… Read more »

Tom Dowd
5 years ago

I’ve heard this before, that somehow large farms violate the “spirit” of organic farming. That’s how the US organic certification laws came to be. Up to that time no one knew what the rules were. Now we do and as long as those rules are met the farm is certified. Size DOESN’T matter in this case.

4 years ago

Wow, an article on organics that never mentions long-established bedrock Certifiers like CCOF, Oregon TILTH or one if the other leaders.
For many early OG Farmers the move to USDA was the end of trust. USDA allows inputs it should not and was a solution only for Corporate Ag to enter the Organic market with lowered standards. Not ALL bad, but terribly flawed in critical ways.
Small certifiers force focus on soil-building and bio-diversity.

4 years ago

Where were all you in the 60s before the USDA and big Ag got involved. We had BOTH and no one was being a bunch of spoiled little brats over that name belongs to me, no it belongs to me. @@ I’ve been doing both since then and don’t bother with the label. It is all about $$$ and has been weakened considerably, particularly over the last 10 years. JHC, y’all are worse than a bunch of petty fighting little kids. The object use to be to do away with the Monsantos of this world and now y’all are attacking… Read more »

Albert Ayeni
2 years ago

My view on the debate on hydro-organic is that we should let the data on produce (crop, fish, etc.) quality from the soil-organic and hydro-organic have the final say. What we consume and impact on our present and future health and the environment trump any other considerations. The USDA and any other public/private entities in the sustainable food systems sphere should take on this assignment seriously and convince “we the people” on the credibility of both sides of the debate so we can move forward with the job of feeding 9+ billion people by 2050.

2 years ago

Why not Label them Organic “Soil” grown and Organic “Hydoponic” or “Aquaculture” grown and Leave it up to the consumer to choose