As hydroponic and aquaponic farms have flourished across the country in recent years, debates about their suitability for organic certification have reached a fever pitch. This past November, the National Organic Standards Board came to a decision on one of the most divisive topics in sustainable farming: Should plants qualify for organic certification if they’re grown without soil? Through a series of close votes, the board — an advisory committee to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) — ruled that hydroponic and aquaponic products will continue to be eligible for organic certification.
To be clear, this vote doesn’t change the standards in place. Hydroponic and aquaponic systems already qualified for certification, but their increasing prevalence has made this standard controversial among many traditional organic farmers, who argue that the lack of soil used with these growing techniques means they don’t meet the USDA’s definition of organic. (Hydroponic systems grow plants in water-based nutrients, while aquaponic systems combine hydroponics and fish farming. Both techniques often grow produce indoors.)
The subject of organic certification is quite contentious. Conceptualized in the mid-20th century, the organic movement originally idealized a “closed-loop” farm system, or a property that produced almost everything it needed on-site. Based on the notion that a well-managed farm would rely foremost on natural processes, organic farming was fundamentally about maintaining and improving soil health.
Today, organic certification has drifted away from this original premise. The requirements for certification focus less on a natural farming philosophy and more on what isn’t allowed — namely, synthetic chemical inputs, such as fertilizers and pesticides. This creates a considerable gray area for farming practices that technically follow organic certification requirements but ethically and/or technologically may fall short of their original intent. While hydroponics don’t pollute the soil with toxic chemicals, they also don’t improve it, mainly because no soil is involved. This leads to the crucial question: How do you categorize a farm operation that uses sustainable techniques, but doesn’t benefit the land it’s on?
Beyond the philosophical tensions, organic farmers are worried about the financial impacts of making certification more inclusive. Organic food sales reached $43 billion in the United States in 2016. Because large-scale greenhouses are cheaper to operate than soil-based farms, hydroponically-grown organic tomatoes can undercut soil-grown ones and drive down prices. Moreover, because hydroponic operations don’t need to undergo a three-year “transition period,” as field-based farms do before putting certified products on the market, they can benefit from a faster return on their investments.
While the controversy over organic certification ostensibly pits farmers with similar goals against each other, the stakes are high. The recent decision may have awarded hydroponics more credibility in the sustainable-growing sphere, but it hardly signals the end of the debate.
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