Hydroponics Can Stay Organic — For Now

Hydroponics seems like the wave of the future. This amazing technology allows farmers to efficiently grow a tremendous amount of produce in settings that just aren’t possible via conventional means. But the question of whether hydroponic produce should be eligible for organic labeling has been a topic of dispute, settled on November 1 by the National Organic Standard Board: Yes, hydroponic produce is eligible for the label when grown in accordance with the standards.

The question of whether hydroponic produce meets with the spirit, not just the regulatory standard, of organic has turned out to be a thorny one.

Those supporting this certification argue that organic standards are fundamentally about environmental stewardship, and that responsible hydroponics reduces our load on the environment. This produce can be grown indoors in towers, for example, cutting down on footprint. It also allows farmers to work in the city, minimizing transportation needs.

It’s also a highly efficient method of production, and reducing waste is key to being gentler on the planet. Controlled indoor conditions mean reduced reliance on pesticides, herbicides and other harmful agricultural chemicals, too.

Advocates argue that farming technology is constantly changing, for good and ill. We can’t base farm policy in techniques that were predominant in, for example, the 1980s, because agriculture doesn’t remain static. Laws and regulations alike need to be flexible enough to account for potentially dramatic changes in the world of farming, and to reward those who introduce innovations that improve the quality, safety and environmental integrity of our food.

Some organic proponents, however, aren’t so convinced. They argue that soil conditioning and caring for the Earth is an important part of their work — that farming the soil plants are grown in, in other words, is as important as growing the plants themselves. Organic farmers commit to building up rich, healthy, nutritious soil by avoiding the use of artificial fertilizers, for instance, and farming in the open also preserves open space and can create wildlife habitat.

They also argue that hydroponics lends itself very well to corporate, industrial farming: Think vast amounts of hydroponic produce, grown at very low cost, thanks to the efficiencies of the method. When branded with an organic premium, hydroponics can yield a sizable profit for corporations.

But consumers often have a very specific vision in their heads when they think of organic products: Small, family-operated farms, committed to doing right by the planet – not sterile factories.

Of course, industrial organic isn’t just a problem in the world of hydroponics. Mega-corporations who see major profit in the future of organic have set up massive soil-based operations, too. And many have leaned on the government to create loopholes that allow them to exploit the cachet of the “organic” label without having to make good on the commitment to support the environment.

Some small farmers decry these practices, arguing that they’re diluting the value of the organic label and making it harder for small farms that struggle to obtain and maintain organic certification, a process that can cost thousands of dollars, between regulatory compliance and the fees for certification.

The nuance of the organic debate can be hard to read behind a simple food label. And for that reason, it’s probable that the status of hydroponic crops will be revisited in the future. As consumers make purchasing decisions, they may want to think about what “organic” means to them so they can make informed choices about the source of their produce –  whether it’s a multinational conglomerate meeting the bare minimum of the organic standard, or a CSA from a local farm that can’t afford organic status, but focuses on caring for crops and the Earth responsibly.

Photo credit: Horticulture Group

56 comments

Janis K
Janis K17 hours ago

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Carl R
Carl Ryesterday

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Amanda M
Amanda M2 days ago

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Amanda M
Amanda M2 days ago

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Leo C
Leo C2 days ago

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Carole R
Carole R2 days ago

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Amanda M
Amanda M3 days ago

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Amanda M
Amanda M3 days ago

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Leo C
Leo C3 days ago

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Janis K
Janis K3 days ago

Thanks for sharing.

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