Hydroponic Farming: Organic or Not?

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Photo by istock/phanthit
Crops grown hydroponically are rooted in a nutrient-rich water solution rather than soil.

When it comes to the prices farmers charge for their produce, the legality of a label often makes all the difference. There’s a lot at stake for what “Certified Organic” really means, which is why the definition has been debated for decades. Recently, the dispute has intensified over the necessity for vegetables and other food to grow in soil to merit organic certification.

The heart of the debate is about whether produce grown hydroponically — meaning the plants are raised in nutrient-enriched water — can be considered organic. Proponents argue that hydroponic systems legally fit the definition of organic growing because the solution used by these systems provides everything plants need to grow, without any synthetic fertilizers or pesticides. They further contend that their methods are even better for the environment than conventional organic farming because hydroponics grow crops with far less water.

Many soil-based organic farmers disagree. They point out that the original mentality behind organic growing is about cultivating soil health, so growing in soil should therefore be essential for organic certification. Naturally amending and improving farm soil has ecological benefits that extend far beyond healthful food, these farmers assert.

Right now, organic farmers have the legal documentation to back up their beliefs. The Organic Foods Production Act of 1990 states, “An organic plan shall contain provisions designed to foster soil fertility, primarily through the management of the organic content of the soil through proper tillage, crop rotation, and manuring.”

Back in 2010, the National Organic Standards Board recommended to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) that hydroponic systems be considered ineligible for organic certification because they don’t use soil. As of this writing, the USDA hasn’t acted on those recommendations, meaning that many hydroponic farms have been, and will continue to be, Certified Organic. However, in November 2016, the Cornucopia Institute (an organic-industry policy group) filed a legal complaint against the USDA over the continuing organic certification of hydroponic farms. If the complaint is successful, the United States will join 24 other countries, including England, the Netherlands, and Mexico, in prohibiting organic certification for hydroponic produce.

Organic farmers fear that the cheaper growing methods and year-round harvests available to hydroponic growers will soon dramatically undercut the price of soil-grown organic goods, taking a chunk out of their estimated $43 billion market share. Whether those fears are founded remains to be seen, though there’s little reason to assume hydroponic systems will always produce cheaper goods. The extensive equipment necessary for hydroponic growing comes at a steep price, and there’s currently little difference in price between hydroponic and organic produce.