For hydro growers, growing organically requires using nutrients sourced from nature, preferably renewable ones. But there’s got to be more to it than that, right? Read on to learn what it takes to make the switch to organics.

Organic hydroponics. Ever wonder what all the fuss is about? The first step in answering this question involves understanding what the word organic really means when it comes to the foods we eat. Like many words, the word organic represents a powerful idea, but it can also be confusing, and even misleading, at times.

A dictionary definition of organic, when it comes to gardening, goes something like this: “produced without synthetic fertilizers, pesticides or hormones,” and sometimes includes wording like: “produced using non-genetically modified ingredients.”

A more technical definition might be shorter and broader, such as: “carbon-based or derived from living things.” This is science-speak for systems where biological materials are processed into plant-friendly fertilizer ingredients through the actions of beneficial bacteria and animals in a predominantly soil-based environment.

A more amorphous, but still important, modern description of the word organic includes synonyms like natural, pure, benign, wholesome, healthy, Earth-friendly, green and safe. This last definition of organic is important in understanding how the concept has captured the world’s imagination and become a juggernaut changing the face of the food industry.

The Organics Industry

An organic label sells food. In the United States alone, the organic food industry pulls in $30 billion a year, and more than double that when you include non-food products. This figure is expected to rise even though organic produce and other food products are typically more expensive than non-organic.

Why is organic food so popular? Although there’s a lively debate about the most pressing factors contributing to our growing public concern about food safety, the informal synonyms for organic listed above offer a clue. They suggest that anything organic is just better and safer. Would a label that says “natural” or “pure” be almost as good as organic? This is actually a common marketing ploy that differs from an organic claim in a very real way in many places.

To carry the label of certified-organic, products must meet some guidelines outlined by government, for instance. More than 25,000 farms and organic businesses here and abroad are certified as compliant with USDA organic regulations. It’s the imposition of organic standards in the US and elsewhere that’s causing the big debate about how or even if hydroponics as a technology is compatible with the rules set down for organic agriculture.

How the Certified Organic Label Works

The fact that organic standards exist is a good thing. Organic standards protect consumers from fraud and establish a baseline for farmers and others. The program that oversees organic labeling in the US is the National Organic Program (NOP), which was established in 1990 and is administered by the USDA.

Basic principles, revisions and updates to the program are made based on recommendations from the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB), a federal advisory committee appointed by the secretary of agriculture. The NOSB is made up of farmers, scientists, environmentalists and other experts from the organic community.

Although NOSB recommendations carry weight, it’s ultimately the USDA that makes decisions about organic policies and implements them as it sees fit. This is important because it was the NOSB that recommended hydroponics for exclusion from organic certification back in 2010, but no action has been taken by the USDA to lock hydroponic growers out of the NOP.

Understanding why the NOSB thinks hydroponics isn’t an organic option, and why the USDA may think it belongs in the program, requires some background. The Certified Organic Seal is an assurance by the USDA that a food product has been produced in accordance with a long list of minimum practices that:

  • Preserve natural resources and biodiversity.
  • Use approved materials exclusively (including fertilizers and pesticides).
  • Don’t use genetically modified ingredients.

Although these principles are broad, the program includes a comprehensive application process, aggressive record-keeping, unscheduled spot checks and annual recertification. There are also occasional additions and changes to the list of approved materials.

So, What About Hydroponics?

In hydroponics, nutrition is provided to plants in liquid form. This is accomplished using inorganic ingredients like metal salts that are highly refined to make them readily water-soluble. Although this can produce plants that are healthier and in some cases more nutritious and more flavorful than those grown organically in soil, it is not consistent with accepted NOP guidelines, which mandate the use of organic fertilizers.

Bringing hydroponic nutrients into compliance with NOP guidelines typically requires switching to organic fertilizers that are water-soluble, complete, cost-effective and safe to use, which can be challenging. Some organic fertilizer options include fish waste, kelp, guanos, manures, blood and bone meals, and worm castings.

The idea of using organic fertilizers to grow plants hydroponically isn’t new. For example, NASA has explored the science of organic hydroponics in the past as a method for growing food in space.

Beyond cultivating healthier crops, an organic gardening regimen strives to encourage the development of more sustainable agriculture by protecting soil and wildlife, promoting soil regeneration and preserving nearby ecosystems and aquatic environments. For hydroponic installations, this would require embarking on a comprehensive, monitored program of water management and spent nutrient and discarded media disposal.

At the start of the federal organic certification program, most agricultural crops, even many greenhouse crops, were soil-based. Although hydroponics existed, it wasn’t considered a major agricultural player.

In fact, several definitions of organic at that time (and even now in some quarters) presumed soil-based practices. There appears to be a strong bias in favor of soil-based growing in organic production.

Part of the original, 1995 NOSB definition of organic reads: “promotes and enhances biodiversity, biological cycles and soil biological activity.” Although organic hydroponic farming is accepted within the NOP, it is not an accepted organic growing method in many nations around the world. That could change, though.

There is a push happening right now in a number of industrialized nations to implement food production methods that result in increased yields using less land and fewer water resources. These are certainly among the goals of many hydroponic growers.

Some sustainable practices and conservation methods may actually be more compatible with hydroponics than with more conventional growing methods, and offer the added incentive of more reliable yields with less use of pesticides.

The inclusion of hydroponics in the NOP has been called a bow to strong lobby pressure by some, but it may be an acknowledgment that times are changing. The future may see advances in hydroponic technology that will make organic growing practices more feasible, or the accepted guidelines for what constitutes organic farming might change somewhat.

Don’t Forget About Aquaponics

Although hydroponics is not generally considered organic, its sister science—aquaponics—comes closer. Aquaponics is a system that mimics nature by integrating hydroponics and aquaculture. In aquaponics, fish are maintained in a pond or tank while plants are cultivated nearby.

The fish waste feeds the plants with the aid of a biological filter that converts the waste into soluble form, while the plant roots filter and clean the water. This is a simple explanation, but it illustrates how versatile hydroponics and related techniques can become with plenty of research and adequate funding.

Maybe a variation on aquaponic theory will lead to a simple, scalable, effective organic hydroponics solution in the near future. Research on this is ongoing in the US, Japan and other nations.

What’s So Important About Organic, Anyway?

Official organic status may be important if you plan on marketing your crops using the Certified Organic seal. This status would make you officially eligible to sell to the estimated 10% of consumers who purchase organic goods. Many of those customers may be just as interested in purchasing products that are wholesome, locally grown and offer better variety than what is available at the market, though.

Supplying greens to a restaurant or herbs to a farmers’ market, for instance, may be more about quality than labeling. It can also be argued that a significant number of consumers are unaware of the difference between Certified Organic produce and produce that is sold under unregulated labeling, such as, “all-natural,” “100% pure,” “heirloom” or “Earth-friendly.”

If you want to grow food crops organically because you think it’s a better choice for your family, you may want to consider a few things. If your goal is to grow the most nutritious plants, or those that haven’t been genetically altered or treated with pesticides, or plants with the most flavor or the best leaf development, you can certainly produce them in a conventional hydroponic garden set-up using non-organic fertilizer.

In the end, cultivating the best plants isn’t about vocabulary; it’s a matter of choosing horticultural practices that suit your gardening goals.