Hydroponics is the process of growing vegetables without soil. Because these systems are relatively easy to construct and manage, hydroponic farms are popping up all over the United States, from micro-producers in urban areas to giant growers who ship nationwide.

The United States is one of the few countries that allows for hydroponics to be labeled organic. Mexico, Japan, Canada and twenty-four countries in Europe prohibit hydroponic produce from gaining certification. Labeling hydroponic production as organic has caused controversy among farmers. Organic certification is a lengthy and tedious process, and traditional growers fear that organizations are not holding hydroponics operations to the same standards.

Organic agriculture sustains the health of soils, ecosystems and individuals. Without soil or an ecosystem, can hydroponics genuinely fit this description? Although people can achieve hydroponic production without chemicals, traditional producers worry the organic label will allow hydroponic growers to undercut the price of vegetables grown in soil.



What Is Hydroponics?

Hydroponics is the method of growing plants in water instead of soil. This process involves using water and nutrients to grow vegetables, such as spinach and tomatoes, in a soil-free environment. One of the benefits of growing produce hydroponically is that these plants tend to grow up to 20% faster than soil-grown crops.

Because plants get most of their nutrients from the soil, hydroponics requires the use of fertilizers to support their growth. These fertilizers can include macro-nutrients like nitrogen and calcium and micro-nutrients like iron and zinc.

Employing hydroponics requires controlling the growing environment, down to the water’s pH and the room’s humidity. While most hydroponic growers rely on fertilizer to provide necessary nutrients, another method combines aquaculture for a symbiotic approach. Aquaculture is the process of raising fish in a controlled environment, and aquaponics uses the nutrients produced by fish as a natural fertilizer.

Should Hydroponics Be Considered Organic? 

The Labeling Controversy

Achieving organic certification is an expensive and time-consuming process for farmers. It includes production practices like soil management, seed sourcing, crop rotation and pest management. If a farmer is transitioning a convention field into organic production, it takes a minimum of three years to be eligible for certification.

The controversy over labeling hydroponics organic is that no soil is present. Arguably, the most crucial aspect of organic certification is the soil. Conventional agriculture depletes the soil, contaminates water and raises human health concerns due to air pollution. Due to the cost of organic certification, some growers are upset that hydroponics can readily obtain the label.

Transitioning to organic cultivation in hydroponic systems is much easier than traditional farming. Because nutrients are heavily regulated and controlled from the start, growers simply need to replace fertilizers with organic alternatives. While this may make hydroponics a chemical-free endeavor, traditional farmers worry that extending the label to soil-free farms undermines the environmentally beneficial standards of the certification.



Grounds for Debate

People have made the case that hydroponics makes the cultivation of chemical-free produce more accessible. For instance, it is much easier for someone to start a hydroponic farm in Brooklyn than to try and find the land to grow an acre of greens. Some research demonstrates that hydroponics can be raised more efficiently than traditional crops by employing elements of water efficiency and higher production per space.

Advocates for hydroponics also state that because vegetables are produced in climate-controlled environments. Utilizing this system may increase food security due to the ability to grow produce in areas with poor conditions. With an increasing global population, hydroponics can be a profitable market that does not suffer from the possibility of crop pests.

Should Hydroponics Be Considered Organic? 

Determining the Place of Hydroponics in Organic Agriculture

The issue remains that organic agriculture is defined most clearly by its environmental benefits, not a climate-controlled growing space. The absence of soil in a hydroponic system separates it from traditional vegetable production and may negatively influence the markets of soil-grown organic produce.

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About the Author:

Emily covers topics in sustainability and green living. You can read more of her work on her site, Conservation Folks.



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