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Just add water: The battle raging over ‘organic hydroponics’

One way of looking at organic and hydroponics is to see them each as valuable assets in the sustainable farming toolbox. They are both resource efficient ‘closed-loop’ growing systems, that deliver important environmental and societal benefits.

But organic farming and hydroponics (where food crops are grown without soil, usually in nutrient infused water) represent very different approaches. Organic is rooted in practices that promote biologically active, healthy soils and is summed up by the motto of organic growing ‘feed the soil, not the plant’. Hydroponic, and other soil-less growing systems, are based on the opposite strategy.  

Collision course 
In the United States previous harmony between organic and hydroponic growers has been severely tested in recent years by the expansion of the concept of ‘organic hydroponics’. 

For 25 years the United States Agriculture Department (USDA) has certified hydroponic and other soil-less systems as organic under the USDA Organic scheme. But recent years have seen growing resistance to this trend from the US organic community, and the launch of a noisy campaign to ‘keep the soil in organic’. 

Matters came to a head in 2017 when the US National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) controversially voted in favour of continuing to allow crops grown hydroponically to be marketed as organic. That decision led directly to the formation of the Real Organic Project, a farmer-led movement set up to “distinguish soil-grown and pasture-raised products under USDA Organic”.

Shortly after the vote, Dave Chapman, an organic grower from Vemont, warned of “a tidal wave of hydroponics coming into organic certification”. He said the NOSB’s decision to back soil-less growing was “edging us towards creating a new organic label”. Not long after Chapman made those remarks, the Real Organic Project launched the Real Organic Standard to allow farmers like him to visibly differentiate from the USDA Organic scheme. 

Hydroponic systems, sometimes known as vertical farms, are capable of producing high crop yields from a very small physical footprint, often utilising low-cost real estate. It means that producers of organic hydroponics are able to significantly undercut other organic growers. 

Unfair competition 
Many organic farmers say this amounts to unfair competition, since hydroponically grown organic-certified crops do not have to be labelled as such. So, as the US organic commentator, Max Goldberg, recently noted, “not only does hydroponics have nothing to do with soil fertility, it also creates an unlevel playing field among organic producers”. 

The higher margins achievable by hydroponics have attracted the interest of wealthy investors. This is pushing hydroponics towards ever larger scale production, and further away from the “utopia of green cities” once envisaged, in which networks of soil-less growers feed urbanites healthy, sustainable greens. 

Between them, leading hydroponics operators like AeroFarms and Plenty have reportedly secured hundreds of millions of dollars in investment, as they have rolled out vertical farm facilities of up to 12,000 m2 in size. 

The European picture 
In Europe, organic hydroponics is not the very live issue it is in the US. Under EU organic rules the use of hydroponics and aquaponics are prohibited and the new EU Organic Regulation firmly cements the “principle of land-related crop production and the nourishing of plants primarily through the soil ecosystem”. The updated Regulation will also phase out use of ‘demarcated beds’, a type of containerised growing system commonly used in Nordic countries, which previously could be certified organic.

In the meantime the hydroponics sector is expanding rapidly across the continent. Operators are building vertical farms that rival the size of the biggest US facilities. Nordic Harvest’s 7,000 m2 unit in Denmark is Europe’s largest to date. A 17-storey 5,000 m2 facility in the UK is not far behind. 

But hydroponics is not always about industrial scale growing. Grow Bristol, based in the west of England city, is a good example of a community-led hydroponic scheme designed to supply fresh food year-round to local residents and restaurants “without the heavy water use and environmental degradation of industrial farming.” 

The New York Times writer Dan Nosowitz says the trend towards a highly commercialised hydroponics market has created an “unfortunate debate that pits people against each other who have many of the same goals in mind”. He says “organic activists and small hydroponic farmers both want to grow sustainably, at their core”, but have been divided by commercial forces and policy decisions that rarely are about small farmers.

But despite the benefits claimed for hydroponics – ‘clean’ pesticide-free food, 95% less water use than field farming and high yields among them – many in the organic sector believe it offers only limited solutions. 

One trick pony 
The distinguished UK organic commentator, Lawrence Woodward, calls hydroponics a “one trick pony” due the limited range of food crops it is suited to (mainly micro greens and leafy salad vegetables). 

Patrick Holden, founder of the Sustainable Food Trust, brings the discussion full circle back to soil. He likens feeding plants through chemical nutrients in solution to feeding a hospital patient with food intravenously. It has an important role in treating serious illness, he says, but in relation to food production it “excludes the vital role of the soil as ‘the stomach’ of the plant, breaking down organic matter and completing nutrient cycles, on which many planetary ecosystems ultimately depend”.

This article was commissioned by, and first appeared in, Bio Eco Actual

Main image: One of 17 Keep the Soil in Organic rallies that have taken place in the US. Photo: Real Organic Project

1 comment on “Just add water: The battle raging over ‘organic hydroponics’

  1. This is surely a Big Ag move to dominate the fastest growing food market in the world…certified organic. It could not get easier for them. They don’t need to buy farmland, tractors and/or other equipment. Nor, do they have to depend upon the weather for their success. Who is it that is rallying the call for continued aero- and hydro- organic production? The likes of Driscoll, Heinz, General Mills and many others. They have some of the largest lobbying groups and no shortage of funds. Kudos to the Real Organic Project for helping people understand the importance of soil in the bigger picture.

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