Photo credit: notenoughgood.com
The Organic Argument
Organic hydroponics has been a concern of the agriculture sector for years. Not only is it preferable in its potential as a lower-cost alternative to mineral based and synthetic nutrient solutions, but as the market increasingly demands organic produce, farmers strive to find ways to compete with soil-based farms that can accomplish it. Unfortunately, organic certification isn’t very easy when you’re using hydroponic technology. Although you grow faster, cleaner, and arguably equally as nutritious produce, the very nature of growing plants suspended in water is unnatural and not easily accepted by organic guidelines around the world.
In soil, plant accessible nutrients are formed through a plethora of aerobic and anaerobic processes. Insects break down plant waste and bacteria break it down even further. Most notably, the transformation of nitrite to nitrate, also known as nitrogen fixation, is a process that is highly difficult to recreate in an affordable lab environment. Growers currently substitute this soil-formed nitrate with minerals or synthetic chemicals containing nitrate, just from a different source. When plants are grown in soil they can withstand changes in their environment and the soil chemistry stays relatively consistent. In hydroponics, since the plants are growing so quickly and are in an abnormal environment, this is not the case. Water chemistry fluctuates within hours if not monitored closely. Because of this, a grower needs to rely on absolute consistency in nutrient solution. A grower can change dosage in response to plant choice or environmental concerns, but has to trust the nutrient solution is made of the same stuff every single time. This is why non-organic, lab formed nutrient solutions are used in the majority of greenhouses around the globe.
Growing medium is also a concern for the organic movement. Although the most commonly used mediums, such as rockwool and coco coir are naturally occurring, since plants don’t normally grow in them, they aren’t completely accepted as an organic substrate.
The most common way of getting around all this is explaining to customers that conventional hydroponics is better than organic farming in many ways. With a closed, controlled environment, there are much less, if any, pesticides used. Due to fear of contamination of this environment, most greenhouses are almost lab-like in cleanliness, and you never have to worry about neighboring agricultural runoff, commonly causing E.Coli and listeria scares. Research has also deduced that as far as the plants are concerned, nutrients are nutrients, despite where they come from.
Although there are organic growing solutions available, they are generally in the boutique range and are intended for hobbyist or medicinal marijuana growers. There are none that are utilized widely among the commercial hydroponic sector, mainly due to cost. When this hurdle is passed, that’s when organic hydroponics can truly be a reality.
Whole Story, Whole Foods's company blog, wrote a really great article on the drivers supporting organically grown food, many methods practiced by hydroponic growers.
Organics for any plant can be extremely rewarding when your yields are harvested.