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Should Hydroponic Produce be labeled organic?


In Support of Organic Labeling for Hydroponics and Aquaponics Produce

In recent months, a passionate debate has been central to the agriculture community. It involved whether hydroponics (and aquaponics) should be included in the “certified organic” category by the USDA.

We emphatically say “Yes!”

In a recent CNN op-ed, Marianne Cufone (adjunct environmental law professor at Loyola University New Orleans), defended organic labeling for hydroponics, writing:

“a number of scientists, researchers, and industry experts support that many such farms are ideal for organic growing, because, among other benefits, they make smart use of resources and thus have less negative impact on the natural environment.”

According to the USDA, produce can be label “organic” if it meets the following criteria:

Assuming you are growing a non-GMO plant within a (non-soil) natural grow medium, while also using an organic nutrient solution (or, in the case of aquaponics, fish waste), it would seem logical that these crops should fall in-line with USDA’s requirements. However, there are those who disagree.

Matthew Hoffman, a Fulbright Scholar at the Norwegian Centre for Rural Research, argues that hydroponics in not on par with traditional organic farming methods, and shouldn’t share the same “organic” labeling. He states:

“Hydroponics in itself is the ultimate separation of food production from nature and the substitution of every last input with something that can be commodified and controlled without any need to care for the natural environment at all. [It] may be a fine way to grow food and it might be an important part of how cities feed themselves in the future, but it’s no more a form of sustainable agriculture than producing wood fiber in a laboratory is a form of sustainable forest management. Although the term organic has lost a lot of meaning since the federal standards kicked in, many supporters still associate it with a form of agriculture—one that as a system is intended to provide a range of land stewardship functions that are completely beyond the scope of hydroponic production.”

While Hoffman makes a valid case, we respectfully disagree with this conclusion. We feel hydroponics and aquaponics are very compatible with sustainable agriculture and stewardship of the land. While the growing environment is certainly more controlled as compared to soil-based farming, hydroponics and aquaponics teach the lessons of nature, and encourages urban dwellers –  and those without a plot of land – to garden and produce healthy, locally-grown food for their community. Hydroponics and aquaponics systems continually recycle water and nutrients in a manner that soil-based agriculture cannot. Further, yield is greatly enhanced, and one hydroponic/aquaponics system can produce much more food per sq. ft., year-round, and for years, than any soil-based farming. In our opinion, hydroponics and aquaponics are the embodiment of “sustainable agriculture” because it treads lightly on the earth, teaches self-sufficiency, and outmatching soil’s output.

More to Hoffman’s point, we don’t feel hydroponics and aquaponics cheapens the organic labeling.  In our opinion, a hydroponic or aquaponics system that uses 100% organic components (like organic nutrient solution, fish waste, and recycled organic grow media like coco coir) produces 100% organic crops. Period.  The land is practically untouched and unharmed, maybe even less so than traditional organic farming methods. The best land stewardship practices are the one with the least amount of human intervention. Thus, a high-yielding hydroponic system shouldn’t be viewed as a cheapening of agriculture, but rather making the most of efficiencies found in nature without interfering with nature.

In our opinion, the main intent of organic labeling isn’t to teach lessons of land stewardship or traditional farming methods.   Instead, most consumers use labeling for transparency: to ensure their produce a free of prohibited substances, such as man-made chemicals and GMOs. We feel that, as long as a hydroponics or aquaponics systems are completely free of anything on the prohibited list outlined by the USDA, these crops are just as worthy of a “certified organic” label as any organically-grown crop from the in soil.

Mark Mordasky, owner of Whipple Hollow Hydroponic Farm in Vt., shares our opinion. He commented:

“We’re in a greenhouse. We’re not doing anything with the land, good or bad. We’re not irresponsibly using land. We’re simply choosing not to use land at all. Does that make us not organic?”

“If we had all of our nutrients organic, all of our pesticides and herbicides — whatever we’re doing to control disease was organic, and the medium itself that the roots are growing in is also organic, all the inputs are organic. The outcome, it seems to me, would be organic.”

We agree.

Maybe what is needed is a sub-category of organic labeling: “Certified Organic-Hydroponics,” “Certified Organic-Aquaponics,” or “Certified Organic-Soil.” This may appease everyone involved in the debate, and give consumers more transparency.

Where do you stand on this issue?