Environment, Organic Policy and Regulations, Social Implications in Agriculture, What is Organic

The Dirty Dialogue in Organic: Where Do “Ponics” Belong?

shutterstock_283999568A few weeks ago I trundled off to yet another National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) meeting in DC. This is a place where a dedicated assortment of organic disciples (and hooligans) spends countless hours deliberating and commentating on the intricacies of organic production. How to balance the needs of the farmer and manufacturer with the expectations of the consumer and be true to the spirit of the organic regulations? The discussion is sometimes laborious and often pointedly impassioned. The latest feverish dialogue spurred on by a cavalcade of differing views is: where if any do new ways of producing food fit into the organic world? Does Hydroponics, Aquaponics or Bioponics belong?  

What the heck are all these Ponics anyway?

Hydroponics is a way of growing plants in mineral nutrient water solutions completely without soil. Sometimes the tender roots are placed in perlite or gravel to provide support, and they are fed with compost tea and liquid fertilizers. This soilless culture dates back as early as 1627 when Francis Bacon published his work on growing terrestrial plants without soil. One of the earliest successes of hydroponics occurred on Wake Island, a rocky atoll in the Pacific Ocean used as a refueling stop for Pan American Airlines. Hydroponics was used there in the 1930s to grow vegetables for the passengers because there is no soil on Wake Island. This soilless way of growing food does have its place, but should it be included in organic agriculture?

sustainablecyclist.com793 × 708
sustainablecyclist.com793 × 708

Aquaponics is a system of producing food that combines aquaculture (raising fish, snails or prawns) and hydroponics (growing plants in water). It’s quite an elegant closed system whereby the fish produce waste which, in turn, circulates to feed the plants which, in turn, purify the water for the next school of aquatic generations. The Aztecs cultivated agricultural islands known as chinampas in a system considered by some to be the first form of aquaponics where they raised plants on stationary (and sometimes movable) islands in lake shallows. I’ve seen it used in urban settings where people who lack access to whole foods can produce chard, kale, tilapia, and lettuce in their own backyard. Should a certified organic option be available for those who want to grow their own food in a clean and healthy way that provides the least harm to the earth water, soil, and biological communities?

BioponicsBioponics is a term that first touched my ears at this NOSB meeting. Bioponics is a modified hydroponic system that uses the same organic inputs, processes, and principles as organic field growers. Commonly bioponic growers use containers as small as a bucket or as big as a cement lined urban landscape. The containers are filled with organic compost, coconut husks or other compostable plant materials. The plants are fed both solid and liquid-based organic fertilizers and inoculated with compost tea and earthworms. All soil-dwelling organisms commonly found in soil-based agriculture can thrive in this compost or bioponic growing media in a container system. A good number of our winter organic tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers are certified organic in these container-based systems that maintain the site soil with no runoff or groundwater contamination. Should these products be stripped of organic certification?

What do the organic regulations say?

According to the Organic Food Production Act 1990 (OFPA) “Soil fertility – An organic plan shall contain provisions designed to foster soil fertility, primarily through the management of the organic content of the soil through proper tillage, crop rotation, and manuring.”

Then in 2000, the USDA regulations further define soil based systems: Soil fertility and crop nutrient management practice standard: • (a) The producer must select and implement tillage and cultivation practices that maintain or improve the physical, chemical, and biological condition of soil and minimize soil erosion. • (b) The producer must manage crop nutrients and soil fertility through rotations, cover crops, and the application of plant and animal materials.

Confusion Reigns

There has been a bucketful of confusion around these “Ponics” due to the fact that in 1995 the NOSB recommended that “Hydroponic production in soilless media may be labeled certified organic if all provisions of the OFPA have been met.” Then in 2010, a different NOSB recommended that hydroponics systems should be prohibited!

Currently, the USDA organic regulations do not prohibit any of the “Ponics.” Certification to the USDA organic standards is allowed, as long as the certifier can demonstrate it is certifying in a way that complies with the standard.

In my mind, this debate about soil and soilless is getting rather murky. As we move into the future to feed the 9 billion in all its varied climates and conditions, as new emerging ways of producing food are introduced, should we incorporate some of them into the organic family? Should we hold steadfast to what has always been done and cling only to the soil in the ground? Should we allow some innovative food systems to be certified to ensure they are chemical free, healthy, and promote ecological balance while conserving biodiversity? Should systems that embody organic principles of sustainability through water conservation and local access to nutritious food be kept out of the organic tent because they look different? The issue is indeed complex, and I don’t have an answer. I do know that livelihoods hang on both sides the debate.

It always raises my dander when people I know, who care deeply for the integrity of organic, come to the NOSB meetings, deliver their ardent and eloquent point of view and then promptly leave. I believe the purpose of the NOSB forum is to make your point heard as well as listen to the other side. There is merit in listening and learning while holding firmly to a presupposed notion. It is possible that a middle way may be had. Until we learn to honor not only the white and the black of an issue but also the possibility of gray, only then can we make progress.

What’s your take on this dirt?

You can view the NOSB presentation here from the two subcommittees who have diverging opinions.

“The secret of change is to focus all of your energy, not on fighting the old but on building the new.”  Socrates

24 thoughts on “The Dirty Dialogue in Organic: Where Do “Ponics” Belong?”

  1. I got to grow a fair amount of indoor tomatoes during my 11 years of managing production for Del Cabo in Baja California. I liked the indoor farming (protected agriculture) that planted, organically, into cultivated soil. It had all the advantages of growing in soil outside (including flavor), plus natural sunlight and was able to eliminate most insects and the diseases they vector. It allowed for huge savings on water and inputs, created more permanent and highly paid jobs for the workers and supplied two countries with fresh organic vegetables all winter. People planted in bags to avoid loss to nematodes and other soil based pests. One can get around that with grafting and using organic soil treatments, though I have nothing against these practices. Hydroponics and aquaponics are great where soil and/or water are limited. A lot of the veterans we work with like these new farming methods because their land options are often limited. I think it is smart for the organic industry to not reject these new types of farming or the new farmers that are practicing them.

  2. Organic is an ecological management system- working with nature, not against nature. Yes soil has been at the heart of organic and always will be, but is there not room for the meaning of organic to be inclusive, so long as it meets the spirit and intent to work in harmony with natural systems? Do we really want organic to be incapable of innovating? So many of the urban innovations could not be organic under a no-ponic regulation yet I’ve no doubt that they would meet the consumer expectation of organic and working in harmony with natural systems.

    1. Thank you Nancy for your thoughtful comment. Surprisingly when consumers were polled it isn’t the soil they identify with as much with as the clean and healthy aspect. Those findings were released at the last NOSB meeting. With a little education consumers can realize the benefits of many organic growing systems. It’s my hope that the organic community doesn’t become fossilized by its inability to change. Melody

      Sent from my iPad

  3. I have a large bias towards soil, and tend to think of the ponics as lacking heart and soul. But I recognize the need to innovate, and when I remove my emotions I see no reason not to use ponics to increase the organic food supply, as long as it passes the food and nutrition testing. Are there any differences in taste or nutrition?

    1. Hi Ron,
      Thank you for your comment! I haven’t noticed any difference in taste. You likely buy many of the Bioponic certified organic tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers at your local store in the winter. They probably don’t taste as yummy as the local ones you get in the summer but that’s because they travel a long way from where the sun shines hotly in the winter.
      I doubt whether there are any studies on their nutritional differences but will certainly look into it.

  4. Great article Melody – I have some questions: I am concerned about the abundant use of plastic materials for “ponic” systems. I recognize that even organic Ag uses plastic materials, but I’m not sure that I can feel good about supporting systems that are heavily reliant on plastic as an infrastructure to grow food. I also worry about the formulated inputs. Are we creating more systems that require the manufacturing of inputs for liquid fertilizers? Perhaps I’m an under-informed idealist who doesn’t understand “where we are” with nutrient production. I like to imagine that we are all moving toward closed loop systems that use compost created by the natural fermentation of nutrients into re-useable forms. The article and some of the comments did open my mind to “ponic” systems being organic. I hope we (as an Organic Community) do come to a great and forward thinking, sustainable compromise! This is why I do love Organics, because I see that it does work towards these goals, taking in many perspectives, while making reasonable compromises. Tough Job !!

    1. Thanks for your thoughtful comments Mindee.
      The use of plastics is much more prevalent in the field production of many vegetables and fruits like strawberries. Every season the ground is literally covered with sheets and then taken to the landfill after every crop.
      The inputs that are used for Bioponic fertilization have the same components as field production. Compost, compost tea and worm castings. The only difference with the Bioponics is that the soil is contained and not on the earth itself. If you look at places like a desert environment it makes sense to build your soil in containers. If you produce crops in Vermont or the Central Valley of CA is make sense to use the soil that’s there on the earth.
      I appreciate you weighing in and hope the NOP can find a clear way through this murk.
      You are selling a lot of vegetable currently certified organic that won’t be available if they rule otherwise.
      Organic is the most transparent and thoroughly vetted food system on the planet! This is all part of the process!

  5. Thanks for the insightful article Melody,

    The USDA and the organic industry got it right when they defined organic production in the regulations as “a production system that is managed … to respond to site-specific conditions by integrating cultural, biological, and mechanical practices that foster cycling of resources, promote ecological balance, and conserve biodiversity.”

    Organic growers have a responsibility to find the most sustainable and resource-efficient forms of organic growing available to them to help preserve and protect our environment and water supply for future generations. As long as “-ponic” growers are using the same natural inputs and diverse biology to nourish their crops and their work continues to be verified through the organic audit process, we should not stifle growing systems that have been in use for over 2,500 years for containers and nearly 1,000 years for aquaponics.

    Organics traditionally has celebrated diversity over monoculture farms, so why would we now discourage a tapestry of production solutions that allow farmers to best meet their site specific conditions? Limiting the supply of organic produce at a time when people demand more of it is bad for consumers. Changing rules that have worked for more than 25 years does not make sense.

    1. Lee,
      Thank you for your thoughtful comments. I love your vision of a tapestry of food systems. It evokes culture, place and craft which agriculture must embrace. One single thread will not weave a system that works in all places and for all people. It’s quite frankly a real shame that folks cant consider new ideas or other strands of thought.

      It’s a great idea for another blog! Best, Melody

  6. Hi Melody,

    I thought it might be useful to hear from a different perspective. I am a soil grower of organic tomatoes. I know that since the hydroponic growers recently organized a lobbying group to promote their inclusion in the organic tent, we will be hearing a lot of voices like yours and Lee’s supporting them. And I certainly accept that there are many different opinions on this subject. But I think it is important to realize that this issue is going to divide the organic community. No matter how much the hydroponic movement says we should be open to new technologies and include them in the program, there are many organic true customers and farmers who disagree. This is evidenced by the moratorium letter that was presented at the NOSB meeting, which called for a moratorium on all new certification of hydroponic until this controversy is resolved. That letter was signed by 15 former NOSB members, 59 organic community leaders, and 40 organizations with total membership exceeding 2,000,000 people. I am sure you are aware that the 2010 NOSB recommendation was clear in calling for the exclusion of hydroponic from organic, but the NOSB failed to act, and now we have the major controversy. I think it is likely that hydro will remain in organic as it quickly becomes “too big to fail,” but in the process it will do incalculable damage to public trust in what the organic label stands for. You are right in your comment that most people have unknowingly already bought hydroponic tomatoes certified as organic. How could they tell? There is no way of identifying this hydroponic produce which many people would prefer not to buy. And once they do find out what they have been buying, many of them will be unhappy, and lose faith in what the organic label stands for. It is issues like this that sends customers to buy local over organic. The whole purpose of the organic label is to make it that people don’t have to research to find out if the food is “really organic.” It is amazing to me that so many in the organic industry seem to be indifferent to this. Trust is very hard to earn. It has taken us many years to get here. Will we now throw it away?

    Dave Chapman

    1. Hi Dave, Thank you for your thoughtful comments. I care deeply about consumer trust and want to do everything we can to keep that strong through transparency. One of the findings I heard at the NOSB meeting was that consumers don’t associate soil with organic as one of their top priorities. ( I believe it’s in the presentation). It’s sort of a miss on our part that consumers aren’t more linked in to how important soil really is.

      I penned this blog to get good healthy discussions on both sides of the issue. What I have heard is that true hydroponics – soilless cultures – may not belong in organic agriculture. Some of the other techniques – that use soil biology and conserve natural resources in containers -may have, it’s for the NOSB to decide. The distinction of the different growing methods is an ongoing discussion and eduction we need to continue to have.

      I appreciate your perspective and look forward to supporting the organic community however this decision unfolds. Thanks again, Melody Sent from my iPad

  7. Hi Melody,

    You made the essential point when you quoted the Organic Foods Production Act OFPA §6513(b)(1), “Soil fertility – An organic plan shall contain provisions designed to foster soil fertility, primarily through the management of the organic content of the soil through proper tillage, crop rotation, and manuring.” It is only possible to certify hydroponics by ignoring this section of the law.

    Organic farming requires soil. Without soil, there is no way to get fertility “primarily through the management of the organic content of the soil”. It is that simple, but fundamental, requirement that hydroponic and aquaponic systems fail to meet. That is what the NOSB concluded when they made their 2010 recommendation. Most certifiers do not certify hydroponic operations.

    Although proponents of so called biological hydroponics make claims that their systems include a soil biology component, there is no evidence to actually support that claim. Actual information about the source of fertility in these systems is proprietary. Even researchers at public universities working with so called “organic” hydroponics tell us that these systems are too new to have data that they can release publicly.

    Sam Welsch

    1. Sam,
      Thank you for your comment. It will certainly be interesting to see how the NOSB resolves this. I look forward to the continued dialogue. Melody

  8. Melody I thank you for this perspective. That being said I want to point out that organic is not perfect and can lead to surface water contamination in sandy soils. I know this because I own a fish farm and grew organically for several years until it became clear that soil based produce production was having an impact on my ponds. I think it needs to be pointed out also that organic production in the inner city tied to soils that have decades of industrial pollutants being deposited out of the air can be a real problem when growing edible plants. Lead for one has accumulated in cities to the point that many areas are unsafe for children to play. Add in the myriad of other toxins from air pollution and industrial waste dumping i.e. mercury, petroleum waste, and the list is longer and harder to spell than antidisestablishmentarianism.
    The use of ponics and container gardening may well be the only safe way to grow in these areas. Also I know several organic hydroponic growers (none of them corporate) that care as much about the produce and the environment as any other organic grower. The use of hydroponics means no soil contamination, no need for crop rotation and best use of land for that production. I was amazed that NOSB wanted to eliminate these methods from certification. While big ag is trying to weedle their way into organics. This amounts to divide and conquer.
    I get that conventional organics is afraid of the competition when it comes to hydroponics. Not having to rotate crops to avoid problems with soil or pests. Production levels exceeding any soil production and in 1/10 the area are common in hydroponics. Longer growing seasons and produce as good or better than soil based production. 20% of the water used in soil based production and with modern technology even transpired water can be collected and reused.
    If we are going to feed the world without gmo’s we need every resource available and this head in the sand approach by the NOSB just gives big ag the high ground and puts money in their pocket by dividing the competition on no good basis. There is no science that states or proves that ponic produce is less than soil based organic.
    I am not organic, will not become organic, because I believe what my customers tell me about the taste and texture and “wholesomeness” of my produce. I use only OMRI listed pesticides when necessary and will put my produce against anyone’s in a blind taste test or based on nutritional content.
    I do also find it interesting that while organic growers state their produce is healthier they have never done a nutritional analysis or even blind taste tests. My customers, and many buy only organic still prefer mine and use the same code words “wholesome” tender and flavorful that are used to describe organic.
    Lastly I grow romaine for hospitals, school districts, restaurants and food co-ops. I have been growing for them for 18 years. In one 3000 sq ft building (my own design) produces 420 heads per week 10 month per year in MN. The same crop grown in soil would use over 3 acres to achieve the same results.
    3000 sq ft compared 132,000 sq ft. For an inner city grow that would be significant.

  9. I want to get into gardening this year and I am so excited! The more I read about it though, the more I realize I know nothing about it! I had never even heard of a ponic before. All I know is you need seeds, sun, water, and dirt!

    1. Thanks for the comment. There are many ways to grow food and once of the easiest is soil, water and sun if you have good access to all three. I encourage you to give it a try even if you start with a container in your back yard.
      Thanks for reading!

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.