Is Organic Hydroponics just round the corner?
Soil-grown organic food production has been around for centuries and up until the late 1940 was just regarded as farming. Now of course, organic food production has morphed itself from farming into the most desirable food production method ever discovered. It really is a back to the Future scenario with the various bureaucratic organisations now fighting over control of this growing movement – no pun intended.
The problem is that there is no clear definition of what Organic Food Production really is.
Organic greenhouse horticulture is defined by the International Society for Horticultural Science (ISHS) as the production of organic horticultural crops (vegetables, ornamentals and fruits) using inputs derived only from natural, non-chemical sources, in climate-controllable greenhouses and tunnels.
The International Federation of Organic Agricultural Movements (IFOAM) not only require the production system to be soil based, but also make it very clear that ‘hydroponics’ is not permitted, but there is no clear definition of hydroponics given by IFOAM.
There is a clear conflict of philosophy between these two definitions, as the ISHS definition makes no mention of soil, which is considered by IFOAM to be an essential component of an organic system, but emphasises the natural (non-chemical) source of the inputs.
Much of the ‘organic philosophy’ appears to be based on the UK Soil Association opinions and the writings of Rudolph Steiner. Both organisations have their origins well before anyone considered growing crops commercially using hydroponic systems, and so hydroponics did not get considered. To suggest that it is unnatural (as has been suggested by some) is to completely disregard the fact that a number of food plants prefer to grow in water (watercress and Wasabia japonica spring readily to mind), and yet growing these plants using water systems automatically makes them non-organic.
There are now a growing number of USDA Organic Certifiers who will certify hydroponic systems as Organic under the USDA regulations. Yes, there are a few hoops to jump through to get there, but it is nowhere as onerous as the high jump manoeuvering required by other certification authorities, where it appears to depend upon who the inspector is rather than what the rules say.
Irrespective of what these organisations want, organic food production as they define it is not sustainable. More and more good farming land is being swallowed up every year by housing and industry, with the occasional natural (or man-made) disaster thrown in for good measure. Add to that the increasing number of people requiring any food source and it becomes obvious that organic food production for the masses is doomed to failure. There is not enough good farming land left, or farmers able to farm what is left at the productive levels required to feed everyone. Therefore, organic food product is unlikely to increase to any great extent and the costs of food produced by these antiquated methods (and holier than thou attitudes) will continue to climb until it is completely out of reach for everyone except the very wealthy.
The interesting thing is that on a worldwide basis everywhere except for Europe, North America and Australia, most of the greenhouse crops are grown in soil. From the early 1960’s onwards most of the developed countries just mentioned moved away from growing in the soil to using hydroponic methods. This combined with the improved control of the greenhouse environment has produced a productivity increase in food production that cannot be matched by soil based systems. It has been shown that 60 years ago the best greenhouse tomato growers were only achieving 20kg/m2/year, and today the best growers harvest 80kg/m2/year. A fourfold increase, but only using environmentally controlled heated greenhouses which requires knowledge of technology. This is far removed from when farmers went to work in the morning carrying their hoe and a packed lunch.
To date, it has not been demonstrated that it is possible to achieve this level of productivity by growing in the natural soil. Insisting that organic produce can only be produced by growing in the soil will therefore ensure that the cost of organic produce must continue to increase to the point where it will never remain in the mainstream of commerce. If prices do not rise to keep at least level with inflationary costs then farms will go bankrupt, the amount of organic product available reduces and the prices increase yet again. A vicious inflationary spiral occurs which must eventually collapse. However, the present organic movement continues to bury its collective head in the sand and fails to recognise the fallacy of their position.
Is it possible to grow in soil using hydroponics?
The answer is Yes! All it takes is to plant into a pot containing soil and then feed the plant a nutrient solution. The problem is not the reality of actually making it happen, but changing the mindset of the Inspectors who check your operation to make sure it conforms to the various Organic organisations standards. That is the problem, most Inspectors I have spoken to about organic hydroponics have a closed mind and have no interest in looking, let alone thinking outside the box they have willingly stepped into.
Soil in the dictionary is defined as “the upper layer of earth in which plants grow, a black or dark brown material typically consisting of a mixture of organic remains, clay, and rock particles.” Therefore, under this definition as soon as we remove any particle of soil from intimate contact with the surface of the Earth then it becomes something else. What does it become? Especially since it has not lost the ability to support the life of plants and organisms normally resident in “soil”. Interesting question, isn’t it. Perhaps this dictionary definition is wrong and should be amended.
On top of all this philosophical debate over the meaning of life, there is also the problem of trying to grow produce in the soil in a way that is highly productive without running foul of a countries legal system which has determined the maximum level of nutrients that you are allowed to legally apply to the soil each year. The Government bureaucratic machine have decided that if you exceed these maximum application limits then the nutrients will leach through the soil down to the ground water system where it will cause havoc, and cost the farmers a lot of money in punitive fines. Is it any real surprise that more and more farmers are moving towards using Controlled Environment Greenhouses coupled with hydroponics. Society, in the form of our elected Government laws and directives are demanding we change our food production methods.
It always seems strange to me that the first tenet of the Organic Movement is “Healthy Soil”, and yet soil sterilisation using steam is regarded as perfectly acceptable, even though everything in the soil is killed – the good and the bad before the first micro-organism comes along to fill the void. Following this though to the extreme, why can’t we use sterilised soil in a system where organically derived nutrient solution is supplied to the plant. We already have organic fertilisers which contain only natural (non-chemically derived) nutrients, such as seaweed, fish manure, etc., which will provide the plants with nutrients.
The mindset seems to collapse at the point where instead of throwing away the used organic fertiliser, it is examined, brought back to the original specification and then re-applied to the same plants. This of course is the basis for recirculating hydroponics.
If soil can be steam sterilised to make it “dead”, and yet still be classified as organic, then it must follow that any other sterile product can also be defined as organic if no chemicals have been used in their manufacture.
Organic Hydroponics is not only possible and practical. Using the above it can be seen that this is the preferred growing method for most if not all food plants. Couple this with raising fish, and you have aquaponics. The pluses for using both of these methods to raise food without chemicals and yet be highly productive and reduce the possibility of contamination of our groundwater supplies indicates that this will be the future of intensive agriculture, irrespective of what the Luddites of the organic world believe.