Hydroponic and aquaponic growers use nonsoil media and water instead of soil. And that’s what makes Liana Hoodes, policy adviser at Northeast Organic Farming Association of New York, suspicious of these operations being classified as organic.
“The foundation of organic farming is the soil,” Hoodes said. “It’s about the life of the soil, not just the crops on the soil. Organic systems should be based on managing organic systems.”
The National Organic Standards Board, an advisory board to the USDA, voted in November to allow hydroponic and aquaponic operations to be certified organic via a new organic standard for nonsoil farming, which did not exist previously.
NOFA-NY, however, will not certify any hydroponic operations, at least not yet.
“The organic certification law specifically refers to soil fertility,” Hoodes said. “There’s lots of places in regulations that speak to managing and improving soils, and soils as the basis of what organic is about.”
Hoodes thinks the USDA “failed organic farmers” by not evaluating the complexity and nuances of the systems “before they allowed big businesses to have huge factories of hydroponics and to have it labeled as ‘organic.’”
Hoodes said she is bothered by the lack of a legal definition of hydroponics and aquaponics, though the closed system of aquaponics does represent the ecological biodiversity supported by a soil-based organic grower.
“You might be able to define an aquaponic system that is ecologically sound,” she said. “Animal welfare may be an issue as essentially they’re not abiding by the natural behavior of the animal. Fish aren’t meant to be held in a glass cage.”
Hoodes thinks hydroponic systems can diminish the ecological environment. And while she likes the fact that these systems usually use less energy, she thinks the systems don’t meet the high bar of organic agriculture.
“Organic is a high bar, the gold standard, but it isn’t the only thing out there,” she said. “Hydroponics are not part of organic. You have to be increasing the health of the soil all the time. You can’t destroy the soil base. We have to take all sorts of steps to build the soil. There are other systems that may do a lot for us.”
The Organic Trade Association, based in Washington, D.C., does not support soil-less agriculture.
“Organic is a voluntary standard and it is critical to achieve industry consensus prerulemaking when USDA updates standards,” said Maggie McNeil, director of media relations for the association. “We’re looking to support good policies that reflect organic principles and we want to see a recommendation that reflects consensus and give NOP something they can work with.”
But hydroponics growers disagree, claiming what they do falls in line with what other organic farmers are doing.
Linda Eldred, owner of Strawberry Fields Hydroponic Farm in Auburn, grows 15,000 strawberry and vegetable plants outdoors on a quarter acre using hydroponic methods.
She doesn’t use pesticides and uses only organic inputs, such as organic fertilizer, but isn’t certified organic.
While she said she respects NOFA-NY’s viewpoint, she contends her plants provide healthful produce because “they get exactly what they need. The weeds aren’t robbing the nutrients. That can hurt your yield. A lot of organically grown crops have that problem because they don’t spray and they can’t take care of the weeds. You may not have as good of a crop. With hydroponics, you can constantly monitor the plants’ nutrition.”
Eldred said she uses a medium of half perlite and verniculipe, coarsely ground rocks that give the roots something to hold onto and to help retain the water.
Matt Roman, co-owner of M&M Hydroponic Garden & Supply in Utica, sells a variety of organic fertilizer suitable for hydroponic growing.
He thinks organizations that don’t want to certify hydroponic operations as organic “don’t have enough knowledge to go by. There is a ton of organic fertilizer.
“It’s a thin line, but if you use 100-percent organic, you can call it organic,” Roman said.
Tinia Pina owns Re-nuble, a Brooklyn-based supplier of organic-based liquid soil and hydroponic nutrients created from organic certified produce waste.
She said that medium- to large-sized hydroponic and aquaponic growers haven’t adopted organic inputs as readily as smaller growers because the automatic equipment doesn’t have the ability to sense nutrients in organic fertilizer, in comparison to chemical-based fertilizers.
“There are ways to do it hydroponically and aquaponically that represent the same synergies in the soil, the degradation of nutrients by microbes and bacteria, that can be replicated, and technology is developing to prove it can be done in a closed environment,” Pina said.
Pina thinks hydroponic and aquaponic operations use much less nutrients than soil-based farms because they allow plants direct access to what they need. They also use less water since it’s not applied to plants from the top down in a closed environment.
“I think organic certification shouldn’t be limited,” she said. “Farms should have the option to get certified. I hope that more people looking to get into agriculture have the larger interest of society in mind and not make it a financially driven motive.
“Grow the largest supply of organic food as possible and don’t be so concerned about the type of growing process,” she said.
Hoodes said that while she isn’t against hydroponics and aquaponics, she thinks marketing and labeling products not grown in soil as organic provides a sub-par product to consumers at the same cost as soil-grown organic produce.