The Dirt on Growing Food in Water: Some Think It Can’t Be Organic

The USDA and the board that advises on the federal standards disagree on hydroponics.

(Photo: Atid Kiattisaksiri/Getty Images)

May 8, 2015· 4 MIN READ
Dan Nosowitz is a freelance writer based in Brooklyn. He has written for Popular Science, The Awl, BuzzFeed, Modern Farmer, Gawker, Fast Company, and elsewhere.

There is perhaps no topic more full of confident people shouting diametrically opposed, yet somehow totally scientifically valid, viewpoints back and forth at each other than food. Whether it’s a debate over toxins, trendy diets, cleanses, or raw milk, everyone is very sure that he or she is correct and that everyone else is wrong—and the person on the other side of the fence feels the same way.

Not only does this play out in health-food stores and Internet comment sections—the dynamic is a part of how federal organic standards are determined.

Case in point: In late April, the National Organic Standards Board, a 15-person board appointed by the secretary of agriculture, recommended to the Department of Agriculture that hydroponics, a method for growing plants in a nutrient-rich water solution instead of soil, be banned from receiving official organic certification. The USDA promptly ignored the recommendation, which has organic advocates furious. “This is kind of the proverbial Soylent Green in terms of a plant,” said Mark Kastel, an organic advocate and cofounder of the nonprofit farm group the Cornucopia Institute.

So why shouldn’t a hydroponic tomato be labeled "USDA Organic"? Because, unlike with field-grown (aka dirt-grown) plants, with hydroponics, humans have to put all of the nutrients into the water it was grown in, making it, as Kastel and other critics believe, an unnatural system unworthy of the "organic" seal. To Kastel and others, hydroponics feels sterile, alienremoved from the visceral, messy history of agriculture. Organic means real. Hydroponics is something else.

“We’re environmentally friendly by nature, just because we’re hydroponic,” said Paul Brentlinger, president of CropKing, a major supplier of hydroponic systems for more than three decades. This is a system that routinely uses insects like ladybugs in place of fertilizers, a system that uses much less space because it can be built vertically, a system that uses a whopping 10 percent of the water conventional farm systems do for the same yield—and, selfishly, a system that can grow fresh tomatoes in the middle of a brutal, snowy winter.

The fight has split the organic community into a few groups—each backed with plenty of money and lobbying groups to defend its point—defined by why they care about the word “organic” and how they define it. For some, like Kastel, organic is a means of bettering the planet. He once referred to organic produce, in a phone conversation, as being “real food.”

“It’s about creating a healthier biological activity in the soil and improving the fertility of the soil. And indirectly that’s how we get our nutrients in food,” he said. It’s about getting your hands in some dirt, dammit.

RELATED: Who Gets to Decide What ‘Organic’ Means?

But that isn’t really what the legal term “organic” means. The National Organic Program, established in 1990, created federal legislation for determining what could be certified organic throughout the entire country, replacing individual state laws. It does not say you must grow plants in soil, though the regulations frequently change, which is why various groups are trying to get that language instituted. Essentially, “organic” means whatever the people in charge decide it means, and those people have a specific idea that it should indicate to the consumer a specific type of farm. And that idea does not include hydroponics.

Hydroponics is a blanket term, but generally speaking, it looks like this: Nutrients commonly found in soil are extracted, dissolved in water, and floated past the exposed roots of plants, which are normally planted in a row in what looks like a rain gutter. The nutrient-rich water works like that nitrous button in the Fast and Furious movies.

“The goal behind hydroponics is to be more efficient in growing food. We use less water, we do it faster, we provide exactly what the plant needs directly to the roots, as opposed to it having to develop huge root systems to go out into the soil and find the nutrients it needs,” Brentlinger said. Plants grow fast and strong in hydroponic systems. For certain plants, especially leafy ones like lettuces and herbs, growth might be accelerated by as much as 25 percent.

But with spotless white PVC pipes, computers, and an indoor setting, a hydroponic system is not what some people envision when they think of organic farming. “It's kind of science fiction–esque,” Kastel said.

There’s nothing about hydroponics that, at the moment, would inherently disqualify it from organic certification. But there are things that are tricky. Brentlinger notes that it’s tough to find organic fertilizers to provide nitrogen that aren’t, in his words, so “sludgy” that they clog the system. And seeds are germinated in materials that aren’t typically organic. But there are solutions to those problems; eventually there will be a good organic source of nitrogen, and even now, hydroponic farmers are experimenting with germinating seeds in peat moss or media made from tree bark.

For Kastel, that doesn’t really matter. “Even if they use all compliant materials, thats no substitute. Each cubic yard of soil has millions of soil organisms—some we understand, and some we dont. They comprise a very complex ecosystem that creates both flavor and nutrients in our food,” he said. “To think were just going to replicate that in a tank with artificial light and Styrofoam and other compounds—its just kind of a stretch.”

Kastel also suggested that hydroponic crops lack the high levels of nutrients, compared with organics. I pointed out that there have been studies indicating that organic food might not be any healthier than conventional food. Kastel countered, saying there have also been studies saying organic food is healthier than conventional food. We’re both right. Which means neither of us is right.

What’s more interesting for consumers is whether the complex ecosystem of soil can lead to more flavorful vegetables than hydroponics, with its minimalist solutions, can muster. Hydroponics has long been known for beautiful, vibrant, flavorless produce. But that’s beginning to change as we understand more about how crops grow, and lately some smaller hydroponic farms have been creating plants at least as flavorful as the fanciest organic soil–grown plants on the market.

Still, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the NOSB would be averse to changing how we think about organic food, especially a change that could be worth billions of dollars. The 15 members of the board are a varied bunch—farmers, environmentalists, public interest specialists, and more—but they’re all firmly from the organic establishment, which does not include farmers who grow vegetables in water.

“Most of the organic producers out there want to be organic because you get a premium for your product,” says Brentlinger. Organic farming, he says, doesn’t come about because you care deeply about Mother Earth or because of the quality of microorganisms in your soil—at least, not entirely. Organic food is a nearly $40 billion a year industry in the U.S., and hydroponics, if it jumps through the various hoops to be declared organic, could flood the market with cheap, organic, local, sustainable products.

Brentlinger is opinionated on the subject of the misunderstandings about hydroponics but not particularly about USDA certification. “I personally dont care one way or the other whether they do end up allowing it or not,” he said.

What seems more sensible is a complete reordering of the labeling system in this country. “Organic,” even with its few modifiers (“made with organic materials” and the like), is a vague and misleading term. The laws try, but they don’t necessarily achieve the goal of denoting which products are the most environmentally friendly, the healthiest, the tastiest. What about a small farm that can’t afford the certification fees but grows amazing, pesticide-free produce? Why should that farm be denied the ability to charge as much for its wares as a mega-corporation that, to the barest limitations of the law, fulfills the certification?

This debate has only one clear answer: The current labeling system is inadequate.