Chew On This: Organics and Hydroponics

Thanks to the members, staff, and speakers who joined us last night at our Co-op Culinary Learning Center for Chew On This! The event was the first in a new series of discussions on a wide range of food topics. Stay tuned to our website and sign up for e-news to learn about more Chew On This events in the future. We look forward to seeing you there.

Last night’s panel featured organic farmer Dave Chapman of Long Wind Farm in Thetford, Vt., and Vermont County Executive Director Heather Mateja from Vermont Farm Services. The topic was a big one: organics and hydroponics.

What’s in a Label?

You’ve seen the circular green and while labels on fruits and vegetables around the produce department, but what does this label really stand for?

Organic is defined by the USDA as:

  • Food or agricultural products produced using cultural, biological, and mechanical practices that support the cycling of on-farm resources, promotion of ecological balance, and conservation of biodiversity in accordance with the USDA organic regulations.

For produce, this means that organic farmers must maintain or enhance soil and water quality and conserve natural lands and wildlife without the use of synthetic fertilizers, sewage sludge, irradiation, or genetic engineering.

For farmers, this certification label can mean more access to markets and increased value of their products. And this certification process is long, labor intensive, and can be expensive. That’s why you might have heard of the recent debate about hydroponically grown crops becoming certified organic.

In May, Chapman penned an article about this debate for PCC Natural Markets titled Should Hydroponic Produce Be Certified Organic? The article gives a good recap of the debate from the organic farmer’s point of view.

“I’m not conscientiously opposed to hydroponics,” Chapman said during last night’s discussion. “I’m conscientiously opposed to hydroponics being organic.”

But what makes hydroponic farming any different? For some areas of the world, hydroponic growing could be a solution to the rapidly growing and urbanizing global population. Hydroponics basically removes soil from the growing equation. Plant roots are bathed in a nutrient-rich water solution, and can be housed in many environments, from greenhouses to shipping containers. Various commercial and specialty crops can be grown hydroponically, including: tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, eggplants, strawberries, leafy vegetables, and more.

Hydroponic growing systems can be closed systems, and therefore a more sustainable choice for areas where water is in short supply. Proponents of hydroponic farming also point to increased yield and year-round growing supply as benefits to hydroponically growing our food.   

Most countries worldwide do not allow hydroponically grown foods to be sold as organic, but USDA regulations do not currently prohibit hydroponics, as long as the certifier can demonstrate that the producers complies with USDA organic standards.

What is this debate really about though? It’s about how the public views organic foods. The original intention of the organic movement was that organic agriculture takes care of the ecosystem. Organic farmers are not opposed to hydroponic agriculture; they just don’t agree that it should be included in organic labelling.

“Plants coevolved for 350 million years with soil and with life in the soil,” Chapman said, “and it ended up with a good system that takes good care of everyone. If we think we can take a bucket and put in exactly the right nutrients to do the same thing, we can’t.”

Nourish. Cultivate. Cooperate.

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Emily Rogers

Emily Rogers is the Co-op's member education manager. Contact her at erogers at coopfoodstore dot com.

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