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Organiponics anyone?

A couple of years ago I got a call from Dave Chapman, an excellent organic grower of greenhouse tomatoes here in Vermont. He wanted me to endorse his campaign to ban organic certification of hydroponics, figuring that the author of The Soul of Soil would be all about “keep the soil in organic.” I had to tell him, with due respect, that I couldn’t support this campaign, which has since become a rallying cry of Vermont’s organic farmers.

It’s not that I don’t sympathize, but it isn’t as clear-cut an issue as the soil crusaders try to suggest. Melody Meyer has done a fine job of outlining the complexities of the debate, as presented by the Hydroponics and Aquaponics Task Force at the most recent National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) meeting. Though she doesn’t take sides, Melody clearly admires the sophisticated aquaponic systems that use fish waste to fertilize the vegetables, and then use plants to clean the recirculating water and keep the fish healthy.

Back in the nineties the organic hydroponics question was debated at a NOFA Conference, when a Massachusetts aquaponics facility was producing certified organic tilapia and lettuce on a commercial scale. My position was and still is that such systems are fully compatible with organic principles. One of my earliest experiences with truly elegant ecological food systems, which I describe in the first chapter of Organic Revolutionary, was a visit to New Alchemy Institute on Cape Cod in 1972, before moving to Vermont. There I saw prototype aquaponic systems being developed by John Todd and Bill McLarney, one of the many innovative and inspiring projects initiated by the sadly long-gone New Alchemy. John Todd continues to develop ecological water purification systems through Ocean Arks International.

True hydroponic systems, in which pure soluble nutrients are used to grow crops in inert media, are close to impossible to operate using only inputs that are permissible under the organic rules. However, what Melody refers to as “bio-ponic” systems use compost-based media that mimic soil ecosystems to supply complex, balanced crop nutrients. Certified organic crops such as tomatoes, cucumbers, and peppers are commonly grown in containers inside greenhouses in desert regions, using significantly less water than similar soil-grown crops.

Something similar is used in diverse urban areas, where crops are grown on rooftops and in containers sitting on pavement. When I went to Cuba in 2000 I also saw what they called “Organoponicos,” raised beds built in urban farms that were filled with compost-based artificial soil. It seems that these options are increasingly favored as a way to deliver ultra-fresh, locally grown veggies to urban dwellers.

In the end, it seems to come down to a question of unwanted competition. Certified organic hydroponic tomatoes from Mexico are sold at low prices in grocery stores all over the country, competing with Dave Chapman’s soil-grown greenhouse tomatoes. I’ve had Dave’s delicious Long Wind Farm tomatoes, and can’t see how they can be compared to those little red Mexican marbles. I would not hesitate to pay more for Dave’s, even if I was unaware (or didn’t care) that the the others were not traditional soil-grown. I will always prefer local, soil-grown vegetables to anything transported across the continent, but I am fortunate to live someplace where I can either grow my own or get them from a nearby neighor. If the aqua-bio-ponic kind are ecologically sophisticated, conserve water, and use only organic-compliant inputs, why not let them be certified organic? It would be simple enough to require transparency by labeling such products as “hydroponically grown.”

If organic is to become the predominant method of food production, as many of us envision, it doesn’t make sense to restrict it so narrowly that only the most fortunate among us can have access to fresh organic vegetables year-round. Also, maybe we don’t really need fresh greenhouse grown tomatoes for our winter salads if we want to eat a low carbon diet.


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