Should Hydroponics be Labeled “Organic”?

By Elle O’Casey

The word hydroponics is derived from two Greek words “hydro” meaning water and “ponic” meaning labor. The water does the work in place of soil. While it may seem like hydroponic gardening is a relatively new concept, the practice has actually been around for thousands of years in various forms. Scholars point to the earliest examples in China and ancient Babylon.

Hydroponic farming relies on a trifecta of water, food and oxygen. While there is no soil involved, most systems use clay pellets, vermiculite, rockwool or coconut husks to support the root system. In hydroponic farming, the nutrients are delivered straight to the plant’s roots via mineral solutions dissolved in water.

Renewed interest in hydroponics began in the 1600s but it wasn’t until the early 1900s that the practice took root when a University of California researcher grew tomato vines more than 25’ high in his yard using mineral solutions instead of soil. In 1937, he termed the practice ‘hydroponics.’

One early hydroponics success story happened on Wake Island, an atoll in the Pacific Ocean. The island, frequently used as a Pan American airlines refueling stop, was the site of an early hydroponic farm. The vegetables were then used in meals for passengers onboard Pan American flights.

Credit: Andy Thomas, FlickrCC

Credit: Andy Thomas, FlickrCC

Hydroponic farming has expanded greatly in recent years. Growers have discovered the yield is much greater, due in part to the fact that nutrients are delivered straight to the roots of hydroponic plants eliminating the need for plants to go searching underground for the necessary nutrients. This results in hydroponic plants requiring much smaller root systems, thereby sending more energy into leaf growth, translating to rapid plant growth.

Without going into too much detail, here is a quick snapshot at the three most popular hydroponic planting methods.

  1. Flotation: This system involves plants growing with their roots dangling in water. An air pump circulates oxygen, water and nutrients to ensure constant nutrient delivery and ample oxygen flow.
  2. Nutrient Film. This system involves plants’ roots growing with aerated water flowing constantly over their root systems. A shallow flow of water carrying dissolved nutrients passes over the bare roots of the plants in a series of channels.
  3. Ebb & Flow: This system involves periodically flooding the roots with nutrient-rich water and subsequently allowing a period of time for the root system to drain.

While the past few weeks have been flooded with election stories and commentaries, another story has been quietly brewing. According to NPR, the National Organic Standards Board will soon decide whether hydroponically grown foods can be labeled “certified organic.” Several local farms and many national organic leaders have come out against the proposed labeling arguing that “soil is the foundation of organic farming, and that hydroponics is not organic.”(NOFA-VT) Other farmers disagree, stating that hydroponics allows plants to be fed liquid fertilizers from organic material, adding that hydroponics helps produce more food and reduces the impact on the land. At last month’s “Rally in the Valley” on Cedar Circle Farm in East Thetford, hundreds of farmers gathered from near and far to voice their concerns to the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB), opposed to the proposed “organic” labeling of hydroponics. The board met for their biannual meeting last week in St. Louis but no decision has been announced yet.

Do Just One Thing: Catch up on the organic hydroponics debate and decide for yourself.

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