This fall the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) will meet in Jacksonville, Florida. Once again they will take up the subject of Hydroponic, Aquaponic, container and Bioponic production in organic. The fruition of this meeting may be to include or revoke these growing methods or to simply come up with definitions to clarify the process. However the NOSB decides these fit into the organic ecosystem is anyone’s guess, so it behooves all producers to understand the evolution of the dialogue, the differing views and the “Ponics” themselves.
How do Ponics stand out from the herd?
Broadly speaking “Ponics” are growing systems not produced in the outermost crust of the earth. Basic Hydroponics involves growing plants in mineral nutrient water solutions completely without soil. The roots are placed in a water-mineral solution or in an inert medium such as perlite or gravel that provides support. They are fed with compost tea and liquid organic fertilizers.
Aquaponics is a system of producing food that combines aquaculture (raising fish, snails or prawns) and hydroponics (growing plants in water). It can be 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.
Bioponics is a term that first evolved at the NOSB meetings. Bioponics is a modified hydroponic system that uses many of the same processes and principles as organic field growers. Bioponic producers utilize containers as small as a bucket or as big as a cement-lined field. These 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. Soil-dwelling organisms commonly found in soil-based agriculture can thrive in this compost or Bioponic growing media in a container system.
According to the NOSB definition of organic production published in April 1995: “Organic agriculture is an ecological production management system that promotes and enhances biodiversity, biological cycles and soil biological activity. It is based on minimal use of off-farm inputs and on management practices that restore, maintain and enhance ecological harmony.” Soil is not mentioned in this definition but continues to be the stronghold of those opposed to its continued certification because soil management is mentioned in many other places.
The USDA organic regulations don’t currently 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.
Evolution of the Ponics discussion
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.” As a result, several Accredited Certification Agencies (ACA’s) began certifying the “Ponics” as organic.
Then in 2010, a different NOSB reversed the recommendation stating that hydroponics systems should be prohibited. The NOP did nothing with the recommendation at that time. Thereafter a group of soil-based farmers renewed a petition to revoke the certification of all currently certified organic operations that do not grow directly in the outmost crust of the Earth.
The NOP assigned a task force to dig deeper, and in the summer of 2016, their report was released. The members split into two groups and came to no consensus. The two basic philosophical arguments are that organics is either about the cycling of natural nutrients and the elimination of harmful chemicals (Pro-Ponic) or organics is about the soil itself (Anti-Ponic).
Current Situation – The natural selection in organic
Today high volumes of fresh produce items like tomatoes, cucumbers, bell peppers, strawberries, blackberries, raspberries, blueberries, living lettuce, living herbs and mushrooms are being produced at an ever-increasing percentage of the organic supply.
This will make the “Ponic” systems discussion red-hot at the NOSB meeting in Jacksonville, Florida, on October 31st– November 2nd. The NOSB decision will impact producers on both sides of the discussion. An outright ban would impact existing supplies and prices, potentially helping soil-based growers. It would negatively impact hundreds of certified producers currently growing in soilless conditions.
With no apparent answers ahead it’s clear that livelihoods hang on both sides of the debate. What’s unclear is who will claim survival of the fittest in this evolutionary saga.