Can Hydroponic be certified as Organic ?

Growing food without soil ? Don’t be surprised, the technique has been around for quite some time! HYDROPONICS as it is known, grows plants without soil, in water-based nutrient solutions. Plant roots are supported using certain inert mediums such as perlite or rockwool, and nutrients are supplied through a water-solution. Simply put, it is the technique of growing plants in water.

Hydroponics has been a well-established technique for many decades. The term Hydroponics was first coined by WF Gericke [UC Berkley], in his book, ‘Complete Guide to Soilless Gardening’ published in 1940. The technique captured the imagination of various farming communities in the last decade. Hydroponic offers many advantages. The roots are dipped in nutrient rich solutions and need not grow longer in search of them; thus, the energy is preserved for growth of leaves, flowers, and fruits. This in turn leads to higher yields. Farmers optimize their transportation costs as the plants can be located closer to the market. The technique is more resource [water and power] efficient. The technique focuses on single crop, giving better economic returns. All this while also being an eco-friendly way of agriculture.

There have been many improvements in the technology such as, instead of the plants being supported to stand in water, the nutrient solution can be simply run past the roots (called the Nutrient film technique). Additionally, the ability to check pH gives the balance of nutrients in solution. Further improvements have come about with the checking of the electrical conductivity of the solution. The drop or rise of EC values is a direct indication of plants consuming more or less than the nutrients supplied in the solution. This enables very precise inputs of essential elements to the solution. Since there is no soil, there are no pests around. Hydroponic is the futuristic farming. It needs no better certification than NASA adopting it for growing vegetables on Mars for prolong stays of astronauts in space. The scientists at Kennedy Space Center’s Space Life Science Lab are developing its Prototype Lunar/Mars Green House Project. Hydroponics has been developed using LEDs resembling the natural light on Mars.

Hydroponic agriculture relies on water as the medium to support and feed the plants. By contrast, the organic farming treats the soil as living medium. Soil plays an important role. The continuous composting process facilitated by microorganisms and useful bugs acts like a slow release of nutrients for the plants. Unlike hydroponic, organic farming promotes multiple rotational crops and does not focus only on single crop. Organic farming is not just about the yields and economics, it has a larger perspective of life in soil fertility, animal welfare, wellbeing, self-sustainability of community and also promotes local employment. Soil based [read organic] farming is inherently superior and more environment friendly.

A controversy irrupted when few farmers in the European Union involved in Hydroponic got their activity certified as ‘Organic’ by their national certifying agencies. It created a major upheaval in the world of Organic. Since then the matter has been debated in various forums and has virtually split the organic world with two contradicting views. The debate has been revolving around the role of soil in the farming process and the wholistic view vs economics.

“The merits of Hydroponic as a futuristic technology cannot be denied. The debate is all about certifying it as Organic. There is no doubt that Hydroponics is futuristic and highly productive, but the ‘Organic’ tag comes with a much higher responsibility.”

- Anjali Hardikar, Managing Partner, Kokan Organica LLP, India

It is expected that the agriculture industry may see merits on both the sides of the debate. However funnily enough, the reverberations from US and EU regulators are echoing different perspectives on the subject. It is argued that as long as food is grown in a sustainable manner it should be eligible to be certified as organic and the legislation by United States Department of Agriculture [USDA] was not created to exclude the soilless cultivation methodologies. The National Organic Standards Board [NOSB] has recommended to USDA, the hydroponically grown food to be certified as Organic. This has been strongly contested by a lawsuit. It is argued that the certification will open many loopholes for inconsistent organic certification. It may weaken the Organic integrity of the product. Apparently, NOSB is now compiling more data for a well-informed conclusion.

On the other side, European Commission clearly established principles of soil based organic farming with its regulation (EC) 834/2007. It has ruled that hydroponics does not qualify to be Organic and it has granted 10 years to the so-called ‘organic hydroponic’, so far certified before 28th June 2017, to switch over to soil based organic farming. Questions are raised about source of nutrients and whether they are certified organic?

The merits of Hydroponic as a futuristic technology cannot be denied. The debate is all about certifying it as Organic. There is no doubt that Hydroponics is futuristic and highly productive, but the ‘Organic’ tag comes with a much higher responsibility. Hydroponic is too much focused on single crop and its economics, being ignorant about the wholistic ecological perspective of Organic farming. There is a need for common ground and emergence of clarity of thoughts on where both the perspectives meet.

The organic world relies on the prudence and wisdom of the regulators in US and EU. They have been quite open to integrate new provisions, adopt new technologies at the same time strict about the enforcement. The jury is still out. Until then organic is organic and hydroponic is hydroponic.


Anjali Hardikar

Managing Partner, Kokan Organica LLP, India