Hydroponic or Aquaponic; Is it Organic?

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Organic food prices are rising in a booming market. This reflects the immense effort put forth by organic farmers to bring to market a product thats production adheres to the rigorous USDA certification standards . Natural grocers throughout the country, led by organic champion Whole Foods, are no longer the only ones focusing on supplying this growing consumer demand. Restaurants are also seeking to meet this growing demand in major cities as well, often utilizing local urban farms. In large cities there is obviously not the space for sprawling rows of organic produce to be grown. Innovation to address these issues has brought hydroponics and aquaponics into the conversation of organic farming.

Hydroponics, according to Dr. Merle Jensen of the University of Arizona, “may simply be described as growing plants with nutrients and water, and without soil.” Growing with the use of hydroponics usually takes place in a controlled environment like a green house, allowing climate control and the ability to monitor the nutrients each plant is receiving. The USDA  takes the stance that as long as a producer adheres to the organic certification protocol of using natural fertilizers and pest control, hydroponically grown produce is classified as organic.

The methodology seems like an excellent way to efficiently and sustainably create organic produce without the struggles of outdoor pest or climate issues. Dr. Jensen points out that hydroponics are”high technology and capital-intensive” but are, “also highly productive, conservative of water and land, and protective of the environment.”  Indeed it is part of this benefit that is stirring up conflict within the organic community between the purists and their new age innovating colleagues. There seems to be resentment among the community of organic farmers using traditional soil methods, as hydroponic growers avoid many trials they face every day in the fields. The balance of cost and capital investment along with constant monitoring of the controlled climate may put them on a closer to equal playing field.

By Sonja Langford

Dave Chapman and David Miskell, both organic farmers for over 20 years, created a petition to Keep the Soil in Organic. They’re mission statement draws from, “Feed the soil, not the plant”, an old proverb at the foundation of the organic community. It’s believed by those in their camp that this has been reversed in hydroponic growing to “Feed the plant, not the soil.” While hydroponic growing doesn’t employ the natural method of growing in soil, it could also be debated that the benefit of this is it doesn’t negatively impact the soil through nutrient depletion. Many organic farmers could point to the fact that hydroponic growing requires minimal agricultural knowledge to successfully implement, which could lead to greater nutrient depletion if the same producer were to grow organically in soil.

The organic communities observation shows great concern for the soil when paired with these standards of the National Organic Program (NOP):

§205.203 Soil fertility and crop nutrient management practice standard.

(a) The producer must select and implement tillage and cultivation practices that maintain or improve the physical, chemical, and biological condition of soil and minimize soil erosion.

(b) The producer must manage crop nutrients and soil fertility through rotations, cover crops, and the application of plant and animal materials.

(c) The producer must manage plant and animal materials to maintain or improve soil organic matter content in a manner that does not contribute to contamination of crops, soil, or water by plant nutrients, pathogenic organisms, heavy metals, or residues of prohibited substances.

These clearly state the protocol for growing organically using soil, but there is no direct mention of other methods. Does this mean they are not acceptable or certifiable? At this point the USDA says no.

A newer innovation to the game farming is aquaponics. While it sounds very similar if not the same as hydroponics, this method is actually quite different, and an integration of two distinct methods. According to FAO Fisheries and Aquaculture Technical Paper No. 589 published by the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization, Aquaponics is a symbiotic integration of two mature disciplines: aquaculture and hydroponics. What this means is the plants are grown in a soil-less medium. The plants are then provided nutrified water from the fish aquaculture system that goes through a process in a biofilter to turn bacteria into nitrates and nitrites. The obvious benefit of this system is that you can produce plants and fish in a sustainable manner.

 When assesing the sustainability of aquaponics it is comparable to indoor hydroponic growing in many ways outside of the final product. According to the report, “Aquaponics can be more productive and economically feasible in certain situations, especially where land and water are limited. However, aquaponics is complicated and requires substantial start-up costs.” This could prove especially beneficial in areas of the world that have a limited water supply, but are able to foresee the benefits of the investment long-term. It has also become a growing trend outside of arid environments and in urban farming communities.

Aquaponics and hydroponics although they don’t “feed the soil”, do not implement the use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides. They seem to be innovative sustainable alternatives to traditional organic methods with the ability to create high yields with a low environmental impact.   How can the farmer feed the soil, if there is no soil to feed?

 Again this begs the question should produce grown using aquaponics or hydroponics be certified organic? It will be interesting to see if they will continue to be certified organic in the future or will receive their own certification.

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