An Environmental and Public Health Disaster Awaits—If USDA Gives Organic Label to Hydroponics

Yves here. I am not quite sure about “public health disaster” but we are running too many experiments on the public at large, starting with GMOs, without consent and even remotely adequate controls.

The main reason people prefer organic food (and I have this from a family member who ran a healthy food business and then later became a business coach to entrepreneurs in that niche, so this is from a very large sample of end customers) is that they want to steer clear of pesticides and other nasties. They don’t think organic food has more nutrients (and Big Ag has produced studies that suggest not, although they are also looking at a narrow nutrient profile). But I do recall seeing studies that suggested that crops that relied heavily on fertilizer were more nutrient-poor than ones grown in better soils. This would seem to be analogous to the critique of hydroponically-grown crops.

By Alison Rose Levy @alisonroselevy, who writes on health, food and the environment. Her website is and her weekly radio program on Progressive Radio is Connect the Dots. Originally published at Alternet

Whether food production entails acres of mono-crops, livestock shuttled through assembly lines or orderly tracks of plastic pipelines in factory-scale hydroponics spaces, streamlined production techniques tempt food producers to improve on nature, without necessarily assessing the long-term health or environmental costs. Even an apparently benign innovation, like hydroponics, may convey unexpected downsides.

Despite each new agricultural novelty, 17 years after the U.S. Department of Agriculture established the Organic Standards, earth-based farming remains the oldest and most proven method for cultivating organic food. A coalition of farmers, sustainability advocates and foodies wants to keep it that way.

“If we want to protect the integrity of the organic seal, we will have to fight for it,” says Lisa Stokke, founder of Next7, which has launched a campaign to raise public awareness about the upcoming decision. Stokke hopes a vote at the October 31 meeting of the USDA’s National Organic Standards Board (NOSB)—which regulates the rules governing organic standards—will rectify what she calls “the wrongful designation of hydroponically grown foods as organic.”

The ruling is particularly critical because soon several pre-Trump members will cycle off the NOSB, to be replaced by Trump-era appointees.

2016 data show that organic foods have burgeoned into a $47 billion industry, year after year increasing more than any other food sector. Over the last two decades, major corporations have briskly acquired organic brands. Ownership gives food conglomerates entrée to the National Organic Standards Board. That means companies like Danone and Clif Bar have a powerful say in organics’ future.

According to Dave Chapman, a Vermont farmer and co-founder of an advocacy group called Keep the Soil in Organic, to get the coveted and economically valuable organic label onto its products, the burgeoning hydroponics industry engineered an end run at the NOSB back in 2014. Despite overwhelming feedback to exclude hydroponics from the organic designation, hydroponic companies quietly marshaled their industry allies and gained admission.

Nutrient Values

Are hydroponically grown foods different from earth-grown organic vegetables in ways that a consumer can’t readily discern? To be authentic, must organic produce be earth-grown?

One striking difference between earth-grown and water-grown is how plants receive the nutrients that are later conveyed to us when we eat them. Farmed plants pull up nutrients through their root systems from the soil. Suspended in water tanks, hydroponic foods must be supplied with a manufactured blend of inputs that aims to compensate for the lack of soil-generated nutrients.

“Hydroponic is the perfect crystallization of conventional agriculture. You feed the plant an input,” says Chapman. To get a high yield at low cost, fertilizer companies contend that they can calculate the “exact balance of nutrients people need,” which Chapman calls “a fantastic arrogance.”

“What nature makes is far more complex than anything people could devise,” agrees Maya Shetreat-Klein, the pediatric neurologist author of The Dirt Cure. She compares the hydroponic input system to infant formula, which was once substituted for breast milk until doctors found that, “Oops, there are no essential fatty acids in formula,” which she says are, “incredibly important for brain development, cancer prevention and so forth.

We think we understand the whole picture until we realize we don’t.

“Humans, plants and the organisms in the soil co-evolved for hundreds of thousands of years. They work together. It’s a community that interacts and supports each other,” Chapman points out. That’s impossible to replicate without soil.

“Soil is home to 25 percent of the world’s biodiversity because it holds a rich array of organisms, vitamins, minerals, and compounds,” says Shetreat-Klein. “In one teaspoon of soil, there is as many organisms as there are people on the planet.”

Just as biodiversity is crucial to the earth, the biodiversity of the human microbiome is crucial to health. With the Human Microbiome Project at the NIH, and comparable organizations at Stanford and Harvard, research into the microbiome is the leading edge of health science.

A biologically diverse human microbiome has been found, “important for gut, immune and brain health,” Shetreat-Klein says. “We share a microbiome with the plants and foods we eat, and with the plants, animals and people we live with.”

We can better trust “what nature provides and what our bodies have evolved with over thousands of years, rather than some kind of chemical amalgam.”

Food and Environmental Resilience

Obviously, it’s cheaper to feed plants bottled fertilizer than to cultivate farm acreage throughout the seasons. Hence hydroponic greens’ lower price point. The growing scale of hydroponic production risks driving organic farmers out of business.

“We need to think ahead 20-30 years,” counsels Fred Kirschenmann, a distinguished fellow at the Aldo Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture, and the president of the board of the Stone Barns Center for Food & Agriculture in New York. “In this input intensive food system…mostly all (the inputs) are non-renewable.”

As phosphate, rock water and water supplies become depleted, their costs will rise, Kirschenmann predicts. To maintain the food supply, he sees an inevitable transition from industrialized production to regenerative agriculture, in which the soil and the plants feed and renew each other. In addition to producing healthier food, earth-grown organics protect the environment, and produces a more resilient long-term food supply.

“A biologically healthy soil cultivated through organic farming absorbs and retains more moisture,” Kirschenmann says. Earth-based organic agriculture also repairs top soil depleted by drought, climate change and poor soil management. Both food supply resilience and protection from climate change depend on the soil, Kirschenmann contends. “For organic to go in a different direction would be a huge mistake.”

“If the hydroponic industry wants to develop its own label, they should do it,” says Stokke. “But right now they are piggy-backing on the organic label and extracting short-term profits by disrupting a longstanding soil-based ecosystem and food economy.”

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  1. thoughtful person

    Could become a big issue with trade. EU – US organic standard reciprocity in jeopardy?

    1. PlutoniumKun

      So far as I’m aware there is no reciprocity in organic standards between the EU and the US. It has to be said that EU wide regulations on organic foods are relatively recent because of the extreme difficulty in getting everyone to agree, especially when it comes to goods imported from outside the EU. It has to be said though that there would be very little trade in fresh food between the EU and the US, it would mainly impact on either processed products, such as wine, or on the difficulties South American producers would have in trying to satisfy both markets.

      1. InspectorOG

        This is not accurate. An International Equivalency Agreement was established in 2012 between the EU and US to enable products certified under either regime to be sold as organic in both jurisdictions. A similar agreement is in place between the US and Canada. Crucially, these equivalency agreements have “critical variances” which must be addressed before products certified under one protocol are deemed eligible for certification under the other.

        Under these agreements produce grown hydroponically in the US may not be sold as “organic” in Canada. This restriction is not currently in place with respect to exports from the US to the EU, however in 2015 the EU began a 10-year program to phase out hydroponics from qualification under their own organic regime, the 10-year phase out period largely designed to appease the Dutch who are world-leaders in greenhouse production. It remains to be seen how and when these changes will be reflected in the EU-US Equivalency arrangement.

  2. Darius

    Is hydroponic produce supposed to be labeled? Whenever I have seen it, I’ve instinctively avoided it. I’ve never really heard anything bad about it but just seems so artificial. On the other hand, permaculture seems to have so many advantages, ecologically, economically and socially.

    1. PlutoniumKun

      There is no labelling requirement. It tends to produce very tasteless products, although weirdly some people seem to like this. A French friend once complained bitterly to me how locals in her village hated Dutch holidaymakers because the Dutch insisted on bringing their own fruit and vegetables with them for cooking and preferred them to what they could find in the French markets. She practically spat out the words ‘Dutch tomatoes…;

      Permaculture is wonderful in many ways, but it has a fundamental flaw in that there is simply no way you can feed an urban population by way of permaculture, its simply not that productive and is far too labour intensive. But permacultural principles, such as building up soil instead of ploughing, and focusing on perennials rather than annuals, is potentially very important for making conventional (organic or otherwise) agriculture sustainable.

      1. JohnM

        ‘weirdly some people seem to like [tasteless products]’

        As a farmer who direct markets fruit, veg and meat at a farmers market, i can assure you that some percentage of people are completely happy, and likely prefer, weakly flavored or tasteless products. and there is a simple way to reduce the flavor (and probably the nutrient concentration) of any food product – just add water. and since most food is sold ‘by the pound’ there is always an incentive to ‘add value’ with excess water.

        Not sure if it affects all veg the same, but i know for a fact you can produce larger, weakly flavored tomatoes with too much water. and not that i know anything about hydroponics but i’d guess they get maximum hydration in that growing situation.

        It’s also my understanding this was the motivation for the introduction of wet ageing of meat – to reduce moisture loss that reduces the weight of a hanging carcass.

    2. TK421

      I’ve never really heard anything bad about it but just seems so artificial.

      So you eat food that wasn’t grown with chemical fertilizers, harvested with tractors, sorted by machine, transported by tractor-trailer, and preserved through refrigeration? You know, to keep artificiality from your foods.

  3. MtnLife

    Conventional and organic foods tend to have the same amount of nutrients. The difference is that the conventional one is often nearly twice the size resulting in a much lower nutrient density. When trying to get children to eat veggies it is easier if they have to eat less of them.

    1. Yves Smith Post author

      Um, lower nutrition density does mean less nutrition. People eat in large part by bulk. That is why dieters are encouraged to have soups before they eat and eat veggies with a lot of water content and/or fiber, like cauliflower or broccoli, to fill them up so they consume fewer calories overall and similarly to avoid calorically dense foods like nuts while they are trying to lose weight.

      And my limited contact with the “nutritional density” food fad (and it is a fad, I’ve been watching these diet theories come and go for nearly 30 years) is that nutritional density is much more about choosing entirely different types of foods v. others. That is why they are so fanatical about kale and collards and mustard greens (all those dark leafy greens, particularly kale, are indeed very very high nutrition). They are also big on superfoods like acai and goji berries. And they are crazy about avocados.

      I know studies of tomatoes have found organic and non-organic have found them to be nutritionally the same, but I don’t know how many nutrients they analyzed in the study.

      1. third_attempt_at_posting_this

        Actually there’s good evidence that organic produce is more nutritious, and there’s a compelling overall reason why. Besides macronutrients, vitamins, and minerals, a lot of the benefit from whole plant foods comes from the phenolic compounds (often serving as direct antioxidants … or, paradoxically, as oxidants, which then get our bodies by hormesis [word of the day!] to healthfully upregulate our own natural antioxidant game). Plants that struggle produce more phenolic compounds … for instance, to fight off pests and parasites. Plants that have it easy (fertilizer and pesticides) produce less … and may also accumulate fewer minerals, such as (discussed here re tomatoes) iron and magnesium.

        1. Yves Smith Post author

          There may be a belief to this effect. I have seen no studies done with any degree of rigor that are consistent with your claim, which is what “evidence” amounts to.

          1. third_attempt_at_posting_this

            My comment cited one study, showing more healthy phenols in organic tomatoes.

            Other studies have shown something similar in kiwis, oranges, and apples.

            Here’s how Dr. Michael Greger, of the slavishly evidence-based, sums up a body of research of what he says are 100s of studies comparing organic and non-organic produce, that, overall found:

            “… higher levels of phenolic phytonutrients. These so-called secondary metabolites of plants are thought to be behind many of the benefits ascribed to eating fruits and vegetables. And organic fruits and vegetables had between 19% and 69% more of a variety of these antioxidant compounds.”

            He goes on …

            So although in vitro studies show higher antioxidant and antimutagenic activity, as well as better inhibition of cancer cell proliferation, clinical studies on the impact of eating organic on human disease simply haven’t been done. Based on antioxidant phytonutrient levels, organic produce may be considered 20% to 40% healthier, the equivalent of adding one or two servings’ worth to a 5-a-day regimen. But organic produce may be 40% more expensive, so for the same money you could just buy the extra serving’s worth of conventional produce.

            1. Yves Smith Post author

              I hate to tell you but you are really stretching.

              I eat organic foods but I am also keenly aware of the fact that the evidentiary support for them actually being better for you is far from proven.

              You are reading that little extract with confirmation bias. The key weasel language is “are thought to be” No one has any proof.

              Medicine is a medieval art and nutrition is one of its biggest backwaters. There is pretty much no science behind nutritional advice. That is why the public lurches from fad to fad.

              See this from WebMD, where is similarly signals that people believe phytonutrients are beneficial but don’t have evidence.

              Plant foods contain thousands of natural chemicals. These are called phytonutrients or phytochemicals.”Phyto” refers to the Greek word for plant. These chemicals help protect plants from germs, fungi, bugs, and other threats.

              Fruits and vegetables contain phytonutrients. Other plant-based foods also contain phytonutrients, such as:

              Whole grains

              Phytonutrients aren’t essential for keeping you alive, unlike the vitamins and minerals that plant foods contain. But when you eat or drink phytonutrients, they may help prevent disease and keep your body working properly.


        2. freedeomny

          Just my two cents – I personally try to eat organic when I can but I am not sure about the research re nutrition and even life longevity. My parents are “extremely” healthy and almost never eat organic. My mom is 84 and my dad is 88. They live on their own – in their own house and take very little medication. What I do know is that they almost never (and never have) eat processed food and with the exception of Saturday night date night, always cook for themselves. They also haven’t had much stress in their lives – my father was able to retire in his 50’s and my parents were able to live a stress free, curiosity filled middle age….

          1. freedeomny

            Might have mentioned this before but The China Study by T. Colin Campbell is really excellent re the study of nutrition/food practices around the world…

    2. PlutoniumKun

      I’m very dubious about those studies comparing organic to non-organic produce, not least because organic growers tend to use differerent varietals, so you are not comparing like for like. I suspect that the ‘nutrients’ identified for comparison represent only a small part of the nutrient ‘package’ of a fruit or vegetable. Having said that, there is little evidence that people who regularly eat organic foods are healthier than those who don’t (although the studies tend to be small and pretty flawed).

      Having said that, I buy organic whenever possible, not because I think its healthier for me, but because its certainly healthier for the planet, and since I happen to live on this planet, I hope to gain from that.

    3. zapster

      Since the 30s there’s been about a 40% drop in nutrient density in commercially grown foods. This is normally attributed to soil depletion, but the advent of high-yield hybrids also contributes a great deal to it. Since high nutrient and low nutrient foods generally don’t look any different, the incentive to grow high-yield crops on minimally-fertilized land is very high. I’ve long suspected this is behind our obesity epidemics; especially in grains, the starches have fallen the least. Adding basic N-P-K fertilizers can produce good-looking produce that is still deficient in calcium, magnesium, copper, and other trace minerals, and apparently those have dropped even farther, as one would expect. The trouble with comparing organics tho, is that it’s relatively new, and it can take years to restore depleted soil. So for awhile, they may not be much more nutritious, even tho they are grown organically. Certainly refraining from pesticides, etc, still makes them healthier, but it may be awhile before one can get reliably-healthy samples to test. OTOH, they *do* taste better!

      A fairly comprehensive study on the yield problem:

      1. Yves Smith Post author

        This is why I have long taken dietary supplements, including vitamins that contain micronutrients. You need to be careful not to take too much of fat-soluble nutrients. But as long as you do that, your only downside is to your wallet, that you are paying for the privilege of having high cost urine.

      2. skippy

        but… but… the green revolution… sigh…

        disheveled… whats his name… sainthood for the corporatists.. and profiteers [rent] in perpetuity… sigh…

  4. James

    We think we understand the whole picture until we realize we don’t.

    This could be said about anything. Should we reject modern medical advances because we don’t have a complete understanding of the human body? What does “whole picture” even mean. This is an argument rife for moving goal posts down the road.

    Under what conditions could these plants warrant the organic moniker? Where does it fall short in terms of nutrition, health, or environmental concerns? Relying on “we can’t know everything” is ignorant. It’s analogous to opposition to climate change research.

    1. Croatoan

      Should we reject modern medical advances because we don’t have a complete understanding of the human body?


      Not only do we not know about the human body, but we completely ignore/do not know what the effects our longer, healthier lifespans have on the environment as a whole.

    2. tegnost

      Under what conditions could these plants warrant the organic moniker?

      It was suggested in the article that the hydroponic industry could create it’s own label. I agree with yves opening that many purchase organic in order to avoid gmo (where possible, adding to concerns food consumers may have is the effort that industry has expended to avoid labeling…I don’t want gmo food, if you do that’s fine, let’s have a label so you can choose to be part of the experiment and i can abstain) and pesticides (see the trend? hydroponic industry, gmo industry, pesticide industry…)

      So ISTM you have the cart before the horse, the organic label does not need hydroponics, hydroponics needs the organic label so short of changing the label to suit the profit motive of an industry, in this case hydroponics, would make the label meaningless to consumers and as a brand designation usda organic would lose luster and other farmers who seek that designation honestly would lose value they deserve.

    3. TK421

      “We don’t have the whole picture!” Isn’t that a marvelous incitement to ignorance. We’ve split the atom, decoded the genome, transplanted hearts, and visited other planets, but according to some we don’t know enough about anything to do anything. These people might as well be holding debates about where babies come from.

      1. Croatoan

        I feel it is ignorant of you not see the complete picture.

        I do not think that we do not no enough to DO anything. I think we will never know enough to foretell the repercussions of what we do.

        We have done all those things but still we suffer.

        Besides, humans have gotten along well for 100,000 years not knowing where babies came from.

  5. jabawocky

    Well its unfortunately not that simple. The first issue is that most of the ingredients in hydroponic solutions are actually already permitted in organic agriculture in the US. These include:

    potassium, molybdenum, calcium, sulphur, boron, copper, manganese, magnesium, selenium, hydrogen peroxide, chlorates, sucrose, alcohols, bleaches, soaps etc etc, the list goes on. The exception would be nitrogen fertilisers and chlorides, but these are hardly health concerns.

    Added to this, many compounds are allowed to be added to organic food during processing, including many non-organic foodstuffs, including important things like starches, milk proteins, gelatin, glycerin. For instance, the regulations seem to permit organic yoghurt in the USA to include non-organic colorants, non-organic starches, gelatin from intensively reared cows, chemical acidity regulators and so on, even non-organic ‘dairy cultures’.

    Thus the differences between stuff necessary in organic hydroponics and stuff regularly added to some organic products may not be that great.

    ‘Organic’ is a great idea because it brought the concept of superior food standards into mass consciousness. But it’s important to remember its limitations.

    1. InspectorOG

      All of these inputs you detail are subject to periodic review by the National Organic Standards Board, which assesses their ongoing necessity as a component in organic production systems. Many products which at one time were allowed in organics have been “sunset” off the National List of Allowed Substances because they were determined to have either suitable, commercially available organic analogs or were not widely in use in the organic community.

      This last point is also important. The National List was designed with the idea that, as organic agriculture matures and develops, many of the synthetic inputs formerly assessed as necessary could be sunset of the list. Should hydroponics be formally sanctioned as “organic,” many of these synthetic and non-organic inputs would subsequently become “necessary” as a matter of course and never sunset off the National List. It also opens the door to allowing more inputs which are “necessary” for organic production to find their way onto the list. Essentially, the result will be a wholesale watering down of the organic standard.

      1. tegnost

        Thank you, this is very clear. My preference is for more labels and narrow certifications, and if hydroponic growers established their own set of organic standards I would be much more likely to purchase their products as a result, but don’t want to see existing certifications broadened and opening the door to deterioration of the standard. That the list you mention has sunset provisions is something I did not know and am glad to hear.

    2. Ned

      So what are “it’s limitations?”

      Organic farms are more profitable than conventional ag on a per acre basis, and especially so when comparing energy inputs, require far less energy. If you want to produce millions of acres of tax payer subsidized corn to be fed to cattle to make hamburgers, organic loses, but then so does the world.

      If you subtract the health costs engendered by consuming pesticide and weed killer residues plus GMOs to the American pocketbook, organic will have far more advantages than corporate chemical commodity crap and far fewer limitations, real or imagined by corporate p.r. agencies and co-opted scientists that big ag can buy off.

    3. Darius

      Mycorrhizal fungal associations are an important element in organic horticulture. I can’t see how they would be possible in hydroponics. Organic horticulture works with nature. It doesn’t set out to create a whole virtual environment.

  6. divadab

    This is really about whether large greenhouse operations, that exist in increasing numbers in Europe and North America, can be certified organic. IN the Northwest, we already get greenhouse peppers and cukes from British Columbia – these guys operate at the 50th parallel and can be competitive with Mexican and Californian produce. The technology is largely Dutch (as are the farmers!) – their greenhouse flower industry is super duper (note that cannabis is a specialty floral crop).

    I’m conflicted on this – I only grow in dirt – but I think the only way forward for agriculture is for everybody to be organic. Even the “very slightly toxic” glyphosate causes brain stem defects in the womb – these chemicals are destructive to life including human. SO I think extending organic certification to greenhouse operations is on balance a good idea, as it advances organic as the only way to go.

    Yes healthy soil is essential to a healthy ecosystem. But I’d rather have greenhouse operators using best organic practice than spraying with teratogenic chemicals and producing toxic environment and food.

      1. barefoot charley

        The great problem with greenhouse growing is that it must be a closed system. That means real life surrounding it must be rigidly excluded, a goal somewhere between difficult and impossible. When reality intrudes in the form of mites, aphids and other denizens of reality easily dealt with in balanced reality, extreme and usually verboten measures must be taken against them.

        Hydroponics makes some sense if you live on a wind-swept, sun-stunted sand spit dreaming of tomatoes and tulips, or if you’re hiding your pot crop. But by any non-corporatized, uncrapified definition, ‘organic hydroponic’ is oxymoronic.

  7. freedeomny

    In the past I have grown hydroponic herbs/salad greens in the winter even though the nutrient/fertilizer solution I’ve bought makes me a bit suspicious. I did see something at Home Depot last week – a fish tank with a hydroponic garden on top – the fish poo nourishes the plants and the plants keep the tank clean. I thought this was very clever…really…. thought about buying it and then I remembered I have a cat. And a fish tank with basil and parsley growing on top of it could seriously put him over the edge….

  8. TK421

    Is this a joke? These arguments against hydroponics are ludicrous. Indoor farming is so much more efficient than soil, for one thing. You water and fertilize your plants, and collect the extra, whereas earth farming the extra is lost, along with the energy taken to clean the water and produce the fertilizer. Most fertilizer is made from natural gas, by the way, a non-renewable resource. Well, the extra fertilizer isn’t “lost” exactly, it ends up in the water table where it fertilizes things we don’t want fertilized.

    Okay, but what if soil provides something that fertilizer lacks? I don’t see how. Soil basically runs out of nutrients after a few crops. Modern-day yield is pretty much entirely to fertilizer.

    Of course, hydroponics also yields far more than traditional farming, so I think I just figured out why the traditionalists are against it.

    “We’ve been farming in soil for millennia!” How is that an argument? Should we stop vaccinating too? Stop sending our children to school and cease using indoor toilets? Sheesh.

      1. Wisdom Seeker

        Or opioids?

        Or nuclear power back in the 1950s?

        Or ethanol 10 years ago?

        It all sounds so promising, until (sometimes) it turns to scat.

        We are what we eat. What trace elements and compounds might naturally come from the soil to make us complete, that hydro grown foods will invariably lack? We know the main nutrients (and so maybe hydro is ok as some fraction of one’s diet), but that doesn’t mean we know them all.

        1. Darius

          Hydroponics is all about inputs. The grower must get a bunch of different nutrients correct in the proper ratios. In organic horticulture the soil itself is the factor. Healthy soil isn’t built on fertilizer. In fact, fertilizer can hinder the fostering of healthy, biologically complex soil.

    1. InspectorOG

      Insofar as whether hydroponics should qualify for the organic label, this is a straw-man argument. Many of the most vociferous critics of hydroponics acknowledge that it has some benefits and utility and are not advocating for a ban of the practice; the question under examination is whether the practice is eligible for the organic label. For reasons I list elsewhere in this thread, I think it is manifestly clear that they do not.

      With respect to the discrete points you raise, practitioners of truly holistic agriculture–whether organic, sustainable, regenerative, or what have you–who dispute your contention that in earth agriculture “the extra is lost.” These systems prioritize the cultivation and development of the soil, and “the extra” is reintegrated into the soil system, either directly as a “green manure” or via composting. These farmers live by the notion that you “Feed the Soil, Not the Plant.”

      As far as yields and efficiency are concerned, is that really so much a benefit? It is widely reported that in gross terms we already produce a global surfeit of food, and that most of it is wasted.

    2. David Swan

      You seem to miss the point. Yes, “soil runs out of nutrients after a few crops” – that is why organic growing practices focus so much effort on improving soil quality rather than allowing it to become depleted.

      Nothing in the OP was an “argument against hydroponics”. It was an argument against certifying hydro as something it is not (organic). As it happens hydroponics already has an organic analogue, aquaponics.

  9. InspectorOG

    Independent Organic Inspector here. In addition to all the valid issues raised in this article, there is also a more straightforward statutory issue at play with respect to the eligibility of hydroponically grown produce to qualify as certified organic.

    §205.203 of the National Organic Program clearly requires a certified organic producer to “select and implement tillage and cultivation practices that maintain or improve the physical, chemical, and biological condition of soil and minimize soil erosion.” Additional requirements with respect to maintaining and improving soils are stipulated in that section of the NOP.

    These regulations were written with the implicit assumption that organic agriculture takes place in the soil. In 2010, the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) provided recommendations to the NOP that hydroponic growing systems should not be certified as organic. The NOP has declined to implement that recommendation, and the matter has continued to be deliberated upon by the NOSB, which has seen an increase in membership from large corporate ag representatives who would benefit the most from certified organic hydroponic produce.

    This raises an additional important issue. Hydroponic growing systems are infrastructure and input-intensive, and the up-front capital requirements of establishing such operations means that hydroponics is largely pursued by Big Ag. Small, soil-based farmers–for whom organic certification has provided a lifeline and means of generating sufficient income in a business with razor-thin margins–will be the primary losers should hydroponics be officially sanctioned with the organic seal, as many will be unable to compete with the price points at which hydroponically grown food will be sold.

    It is also important to note that there is significant disunity within the organic certification community with respect to whether hydroponics should qualify as organic; currently, it is up to the discretion of the Accredited Certifying Agency to determine whether or not hydroponics can be certified organic, with some certifiers refusing to certify hydroponics while others (notably those with large, corporate ag clients) will certify hydroponically grown produce as organic. The lack of clarity on this issue is certainly not helpful as far as consumer confidence in the organic label is concerned.

    The best coverage of this issue, IMO, is being provided by The Cornucopia Institute: see their article “Can a Soil-less Growing System be “Organic”? Cornucopia is also live-blogging today’s NOSB meeting in Jacksonville here.

  10. Ned

    Just another attempt by finance and chemical corporations to take over and ride the coattails of one of the few authentic social institutions and wildly successful industries to arise in the American economy.

    There’s no mycelium fungi nor beneficial bacteria nor earthworms in chemically addled water. Big Ag cannot make money off small farms with diverse products tailored to the unique soils found thereon. Read Mycelium Running for a preview of some of the processes that occur in organic soil.

    Authentic organic food is certified as such by once local and now widespread certifying bodies such as CCOF, California Certified Organic Farmers, or Oregon Tilth.

    “USDA Organic” is better than conventional chemical corporate agriculture, but as noted elsewhere, is co-opted and is good enough for people who accept advertising and don’t look very deeply into what they are putting into their bodies and those of their children. We’ve seen how good federal regulators are at assuring the quality of what Americans buy in the banking industry.

    Soyganic Green will be good enough for some people at the beginning of the learning curve I guess, but no educated purchaser of organic food will consume the stuff.

    See the Organic Consumers Association for the most complete coverage of organic standards and the threats like this to the organic food we rely on.

    Here’s their take on hydroponics

  11. barefoot charley

    Thanks for these links. The bottom one concludes quoting an organic farmer:

    “When I served on the USDA Hydroponic Task Force, we were unable to get a single hydroponic member of the task force to share exactly what they used to fertilize their crop. We were told it was a secret.

    “These are efficiently run organizations that do what they do well, but they have no business selling their products as organic unless they are willing to profoundly change how they farm. And so far they are not willing to do that. They are only interested in using the USDA label for the price premium.”

    Contrary to what’s said above, as this link stresses, organic practices must improve rather than deplete soils, or they ain’t organic. Hydroponic practices might as well be called petroponics, because that’s where their inputs come from, which are cheap because they deplete a one-time resource, processed using unsustainable, cost-externalized petro-power.

    I hasten to add I’m talking about greenhouses, not gizmos from Home Depot.

  12. Harold

    I think hydroponics are very appropriate for some things, such as watercress and micro greens, such as chervil.

  13. MyLessThanPrimeBeef

    Thanks for this link.

    We think we understand the whole picture until we realize we don’t.

    That’s science. The best explanation, or understanding, today.

    “Understand. Apply only very reluctantly…partial knowledge…tomorrow we will know better (and regret today’s action).”

    It’s OK to understand.


    If one believes in progress (that is, we will understand more tomorrow).

  14. Oregoncharles

    ” 17 years after the U.S. Department of Agriculture established the Organic Standards”

    Yes, I remember that. What she doesn’t say is that the organic industry, which till then was strictly self-defined and self-regulated, ASKED the USDA to establish those standards. At the time, I thought that was very foolish, as USDA had always been opposed to organic. They were putting themselves in the hands of the enemy. I even said so at a conference – though I wasn’t in a position to make any difference. The decision was very controversial within the movement – which at the time was at least as much of a movement as an industry.

    Now we see the consequences. Since organic is based on “feeding the soil, not the plants,” it’s self-contradictory to call hydroponics “organic.” And that’s just the simple-minded objection. Making the term self-contradictory will largely destroy it, which I suspect is the USDA’s long-term objective.

    A “toxics and synthetics free” designation for hydroponics would make sense, but that isn’t what’s at stake.

  15. drumlin woodchuckles

    There may be a way for organic growers who grow their produce in soil to defend the brand value and price of what they do. My suggestion is inspired by the way that strictly grass-fed beef producers have started labelling their beef as grass-fed.

    What I suggest is that if the USDA decides to say that “organic” hydroponic can indeed be called Organic, that the organic farmers who grow their produce in soil begin calling their product Soil Grown Organic. “Soil Grown” could come to mean “greater value” fruits and vegetables just as “Grass Fed” has come to mean “greater value” meat.

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