Slowly but surely, indoor urban farms are starting to take over as the new norm. From the largest commercial farms to the smallest of kitchen counter-top systems, hydroponics are becoming a very big deal all over the world. And when it comes to the benefits of cultivating crops using such technologically advanced systems, there are quite a few to speak of.
But at the same time, one extremely important and controversial question is being asked by a growing contingency of experts and onlookers:
Can anything that hasn’t been grown in soil be certified organic?
Specifically, if plants are grown in artificial conditions in any indoor environment, using some kind of nutrient solution and mechanical fixings rather than soil, should they be able to carry the respective country’s official ‘Certified Organic’ label?
On the surface, you might think the answer is relatively simple. In reality, it is a subject of ferocious debate right now that is reaching boiling point within organic farming communities, both across the United States and internationally. And for the time being at least, it doesn’t seem like it’s a debate that’s going to be brought to a conclusion.
The USDA Wades In
In 2015, the United States Department of Agriculture decided to make its own voice heard, in an attempt to clarify things once and for all. This involved putting together a team that went by the moniker of the US National Organic Program’s
and Aquaponic Task Force. After carrying out its own research and debating the matter in full, the panel released a report with its own guidelines and recommendations, with regard to proposed standards for federal organic certification and related matters. Unfortunately, the conclusions reached in the report were not exactly what you could call conclusive.
As such, disputes and distress continue as thousands of farmers believe that the US – along with all other countries globally – should prohibit the use of any kind of organic certification, when crops have been cultivated using any method other than traditional soil.
The primary reason why the report failed to reach the conclusion was the way in which it accepted that both approaches to crop cultivation can technically satisfy all requirements for the production of organic crops. The fact that the task force did not take a definitive stance simply served to further cloud the issue, while at the same time infuriating farmers convinced of the fact that alternative cultivation methods cannot and should not be considered organic. They believe that the on-the-fence position of the task force undermines the organic soil-farming industry and to a certain extent puts it in jeopardy.
Included in the task force report is a letter to Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, signed by organic farmers and organizations representing 2.2 million people calling for an immediate moratorium on all new hydroponic certification.
On a much wider scale however, the debate is doing little to combat growing consumer confusion as to what exactly they should be buying. Or rather, what organic products actually are. The simple fact of the matter is that regardless of personal take on the matter, the term ‘organic’ in the cultivation sense is defined as something that is grown from seed to final product using only 100% organic products, nutrients and so on. It’s what makes the difference between plants that are grown as they would in their natural habitat and those that are force-fed or treated with chemicals and other synthetic products, in order to boost growth and improved final yields.
Which in turn means that when going by this definition alone, it is perfectly possible for hydroponic crops to be grown by way of 100% organic means. Hydroponic cultivation eliminates the need for growing media, though if media is to be used, it is usually organic coco coir. Likewise, the nutrient solution the plants are provided with can be 100% organic, manufactured using only the highest quality natural ingredients which themselves have been produced by entirely organic means. Whichever way you look at it, the plant has at no time during its life been provided with anything chemical or synthetic – therefore satisfying all base requirements for organic certification.
Nevertheless, many farmers continue to argue that as the growing environment itself is manmade, controlled and managed using artificial lighting, heating systems and so on, this immediately strips the resulting crops of organic certification. This, combined with the fact that they firmly believe crops cannot and will not grow as nature intended, unless grown exclusively in soil.
A Question of Quality
For others, it’s simply a question of quality. That being, whether it is ever possible for crops grown in hydroponic systems to have the same or better nutritional value than those grown in soil. This represents one of the key arguments voiced by those opposing hydroponics, who insist that soil and soil alone can provide plants with the growing conditions they need to produce crops of the highest nutritional value.
From a purely scientific perspective however, this doesn’t appear to be the case at all. Instead, it all comes down to the specific nutrient solution the crops are provided with. Quite simply, if plants in a hydroponic setup are provided with the highest quality nutrient solution manufactured from 100% organic ingredients, the resulting crops can be every bit as nutritious and high in quality as soil-grown crops.
“Much as I think that soil is just great for growing plants, hydroponics has come a long way,” said Marion Nestle, a professor of nutrition, food studies and public health at New York University.
“I’ve seen hydroponic producers who have tested their leafy greens for key nutrients, and the amounts fall well within normal limits for their crop and are sometimes even higher.”
At its core, the debate is one that centres on exactly how the $43 billion organic industry in the United States could be affected by the growth and development of hydroponics. Even now, hardware retailers like Hydrosys are noting enormous spikes in both queries and purchases, from members of the public interested in setting up their own basic cultivation systems at home. While organic crop cultivation using traditional soil methods can be hard-fought and even unreliable, hydroponics remain consistently reliable and are for the most part automated.
Put simply, hydroponic growing represents a faster, easier, more reliable and more capable approach to cultivation, which as far as scientific research tells us can produce crops of equal or even superior quality.
Back with the USDA
For the time being at least therefore, this is one increasingly ferocious debate that isn’t going to go away. And nor will it, until the USDA decides to take action with regard to what exactly qualifies as certified organic and what doesn’t. Which is something that may not happen at all. The problem being that to redefine what qualifies as certified organic is to effectively redefine the very meaning of ‘organic’ as a whole. Something that would not be particularly helpful for a consumer public that’s already struggling to get to grips with what organic really means.
Instead, the most obvious and probable outcome is the introduction of a second type of certification, applicable only to products that have been grown both organically and in soil. But with far cheaper 100% organic hydro crops also on the market, it remains to be seen whether this second classification of organic would garner any real consumer interest.