November/December 2020 Issue
Organics: Can Hydroponics Qualify as Organic?
By Mindy Hermann, MBA, RDN
Vol. 22, No. 9, P. 20
The stars are seemingly aligned in favor of hydroponic agriculture, a method of growing plants in a greenhouse or vertical farm without soil.
Consumer demand for fresh and local produce keep growing; technological advances continue to facilitate computerized controls of greenhouse inputs such as light, water, and nutrients; seed companies are speeding up development of seeds specifically suited for indoor cultivation; and money is being invested into building and operating hydroponics facilities close to urban centers.
Although the term “hydroponics” refers to water, hydroponic crops are grown either in water or on plant-based matrix materials. The newer term, “controlled-environment agriculture” (CEA), encompasses various types of indoor cultivation, including hydroponics. This article discusses the benefits of hydroponically grown produce, the progress made in this agricultural sector, and whether it’s any closer to qualifying for organic certification.
Benefits to Consumers and the Environment
There are several benefits of hydroponics to consumers. Salad greens are fresher and last longer because their handling and travel time to retail outlets is tightly managed. Quality is consistent because technology-driven systems ensure crops receive precise amounts of water and nutrients. Traditionally warm-weather crops such as tomatoes, cucumbers, and peppers can be available in markets year-round, even in cold climates.
In addition, hydroponic cultivation has a lower impact on the environment. Compared with crops grown in soil, hydroponic crops have a reduced risk of root-related diseases that would need treatment and they require less water. A report by the World Wildlife Fund found that precision indoor water systems use one liter of water to produce a kilogram of lettuce, compared with 150 liters for one kilogram of field-grown lettuce.1 Greenhouse yields are higher than field yields and are associated with decreased food loss and food waste of at least 40%, depending on the method of estimating loss.
“Many hydroponic farms utilize vertical farming and require less space than a traditional farm to grow the same amount of food,” says Liz Weiss, MS, RDN, author of five cookbooks and founder of the podcast Liz’s Healthy Table in Lexington, Massachusetts. “Smaller footprint, less land, and fewer resources are a win-win for the environment.”
Dawn of a New Era
Hydroponic cultivation dates back hundreds of years—think ancient floating gardens—but it has accelerated over the past century. One pioneer, Umberto Mastronardi, founded Sunset and Mastronardi Produce in Ontario, Canada, in the 1950s so he could provide greenhouse-grown fresh tomatoes year-round. Companies such as Texas-based Kingdom Fresh Farms established greenhouses in Mexico for growing tomatoes and learned through partnerships with hydroponics experts in other parts of the world.
What differentiates today’s hydroponics from those established earlier are the marriage of technology and agriculture to allow for precision cultivation, and the infusion of venture capital funding to support technology investments. Hydroponics growers are more computer scientists than farmers.
In addition to the classic greenhouse crops of tomatoes, peppers, and cucumbers, advances in cultivation of leafy greens and berries are driving expansion of hydroponics across the country. Companies also are exploring ways to generate better greenhouse crops. Equipment to oxygenate water with nanobubbles, for example, boosts water quality to improve plant and root health, combat algae and pathogens, and aid in nutrient absorption.
Best Produce for Hydroponics
Not long ago, winter tomatoes that were lacking in color and flavor dominated greenhouse crops. Advances in seed breeding and hydroponics, however, have opened the door for new varieties bred for sensory features, including flavor, durability, shelf life, and shopper appeal.
Sunset, for example, cultivates tomatoes called Sugar Bomb that have a sweet flavor and also adhere tightly to the vine during shipping and display. In addition to their flavor profile, they help reduce loss for produce departments because they don’t fall off the stem and into the displays and risk getting thrown away rather than sold.
In addition to tomatoes of various sizes, popular hydroponic crops include standard, mini, Persian, and English cucumbers and colorful standard and mini bell peppers—the Netherlands is known for its advancements in the cultivation of greenhouse peppers. Hydroponically grown berries also are becoming more prevalent as a way to meet consumer demand for year-round availability.
Hydroponic cultivation of salad greens and baby leaf combinations accelerated a few years ago, helped by the introduction of CEA-compatible seeds from seed cultivators, such as Sakata Seed America, and support by outside investors. Sakata recently expanded its team to test its seeds in different types of CEA systems and collaborate with growers to develop new seed varieties. The company currently offers more than 30 varieties of baby leaf greens and microgreens, including arugula, beet leaf, pak choi, spinach, Swiss chard, and other leafy greens developed for a hydroponic environment.
Can Hydroponic Be Organic?
While there are many benefits to hydroponically grown produce, the question is whether it also can be grown organically. The organic produce industry falls under the oversight of the USDA’s National Organic Program (NOP). The NOP sets national standards and regulations for organically produced agricultural products that bear the USDA organic seal. The National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) makes recommendations to the NOP on issues involving organic cultivation and regulations.
Discussions among NOSB members regarding whether hydroponic produce is eligible to carry the USDA organic seal have continued for years. The key sticking point is whether to define organic narrowly in terms of the types of inputs permitted or broadly to also require that organic crops be grown in soil. In November 2017, the NOSB narrowly rejected a proposal to prohibit hydroponics from being certified as organic. The Coalition for Sustainable Organics, a group of growers whose website touts the “continued allowance of containerized growing methods under the National Organic Program,” supports organic certification for hydroponic produce.
Conversely, the Center for Food Safety, a group whose website says that it drives “a powerful food movement that is fighting the industrial model and promoting organic, ecological, and sustainable alternatives,” argues that soil is at the core of organic farming and that because hydroponics don’t use soil or contribute to soil fertility, they can’t be certified organic.2 A ban on organic certification would apply to a wide range of hydroponic cultivation methods. The US Department of Justice, in a June 2020 document, agrees with the USDA that because hydroponic cultivation minimizes damage to soil and water, it fits the vision for organic agriculture.
“A fully organic and certified field or hydroponic operation must use certified organic seeds that are produced by certified organic growers in the same way as the organic crop,” says Belgin Cukadar, head of global glasshouse breeding programs at Bayer Vegetable Seeds in St. Louis. “An organic seed must be untreated, or treated only with substances such as microbial products that are on the NOP National List of products allowable for organic production.”
Cukadar notes that in some countries hydroponic crops that aren’t grown in soil are prohibited from obtaining an organic certification, even if they’re grown using organic methods. So a hydroponic operation that uses organic inputs would have the option to use organic or conventional seeds based on their unique needs and market availability because organic certification isn’t an option.
“In addition, in the United States, organic growers may use conventionally grown seeds when an equivalent organic variety is not commercially available, but only if the seeds have not been genetically modified or treated with prohibited substances, such as fungicides,” Cukadar says, adding that seeds with disease-resistant traits are important to hydroponic cultivation.
Hydroponic growers often choose not to pursue organic certification because of its associated costs and restrictions on inputs. Instead, hydroponically grown greens, for example, will display front-of-pack declarations regarding local cultivation, freedom from pesticides, clean ingredients, sustainability, and other statements that resonate with consumers but stop short of making organic claims.
Guidance for Dietitians
Hydroponic produce offers numerous benefits for consumers who purchase both conventional and organic products. Many varieties are grown free of pesticides, aren’t exposed to the same pathogens as their field-grown counterparts, and are associated with fewer recalls for contamination. Moreover, hydroponic produce has shorter travel miles and therefore a longer shelf life; it’s linked with less household food waste, and snackable varieties such as mini peppers and mini cucumbers add fun and flavor to eating vegetables.
“Because consumers may not be able to tell which produce items are hydroponically grown, depending on how they are labeled, dietitians need to understand the nuances of hydroponic and organic in order to help consumers better understand and navigate their options in the produce aisle,” says Robyn Flipse, MS, MA, RDN, owner of Nutrition Communications Services in Bradley Beach, New Jersey. “Organic produce is labeled organic, so it’s easy to find. The features of hydroponic may be less obvious. But at the end of the day, our goal is to help consumers eat more vegetables of any kind.”
— Mindy Hermann, MBA, RDN, is a food and communications consultant in metro New York.
1. Kurnik J. Indoor soilless farming: phase I: Examining the industry and impacts of controlled environment agriculture. World Wildlife Fund website. https://www.worldwildlife.org/publications/indoor-soilless-farming-phase-i-examining-the-industry-and-impacts-of-controlled-environment-agriculture. Published May 14, 2020.
2. Why hydroponics should not be certified organic. Center for Food Safety website. https://www.centerforfoodsafety.org/fact-sheets/5907/why-hydroponics-should-not-be-certified-organic. Published March 3, 2020.
• CEA Food Safety Coalition: ceafoodsafety.org
• Coalition for Sustainable Organics: coalitionforsustainableorganics.org
• USDA Agricultural Marketing Service Organic Regulations: ams.usda.gov/rules-regulations/organic
• World Wildlife Fund The Markets Institute: worldwildlife.org/initiatives/the-markets-institute