Hydroponic Misrepresentations and Inaccurate Corporate Propaganda

According to Dave Chapman, Vermont organic greenhouse grower and one of the pioneering farmers leading the fight to preserve soil in organic production, “As far as the inevitable spin that the hydro folks will put out, the biggest whopper is “We’re not hydroponic. We are container growers.”

Chapman continued, “Every effort is being made to confuse this issue in the minds of consumers. To everyone in the greenhouse industry, hydroponic is a term used to describe growing plants by supplying most of their nutrition in a liquid, plant-available solution, whether in a container or in a water-filled pipe.” This is a radical departure from the way that a plant gets its nutrition in nature and deviates from principles respected from the inception of the organic farming movement.

The Cornucopia Institute offers this FAQ to address common responses from major hydroponic players, such as Driscoll’s, and some of the trade lobbyists representing corporate agribusiness, including the Organic Trade Association (OTA) and the Coalition for Sustainable Organics, an “astroturf” group founded by businesses that have invested in hydroponic production.

Didn’t the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) approve hydroponic in Florida in 2017?  No, they failed to pass a clarification on prohibiting it. The standing recommendation by the NOSB is to prohibit all hydroponics. Furthermore, there is no action by the NOSB that could take precedent over the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990 (OFPA), passed by Congress, and the current federal organic regulations that both require soil stewardship as a prerequisite for certification.

Isn’t hydroponic allowed by the USDA?  Yes, it is being permitted, but this is against the recommendation of the NOSB and, again, against the law as laid out by OFPA. They are ignoring the law.

Don’t other countries allow hydroponic to be certified as organic?  No, hydroponic production in most other countries cannot be sold domestically and labeled as organic. Some countries, where domestic marketing would be illegal, export their hydroponic produce labeled “organic” to the U.S.  In most of the European Union (EU), hydroponic production must be sold as conventional. There is a debate right now on whether the EU will allow USDA certified hydroponic to be sold as organic in Europe. Indications are that they will prohibit it. Canada already prohibits it.

Consumers don’t care about hydroponic produce being labeled organic as long as it isn’t sprayed with pesticides.  This might be true for the least knowledgeable organic consumers. However, organic eaters are demographically a pretty well-educated group of Americans, and they understand the relationship between true organic practices and nutritionally superior produce. A petition to prohibit hydroponic practices in organics garnered 100,000 signatures in just the few weeks prior to the critical 2017 NOSB meeting in Florida (NOSB members, dominated by those with affiliations with the lobbyists at the OTA, ignored the vast preponderance of comments from citizens and organic farmers and instead listened to the voice of agribusiness).

Isn’t organic really about avoiding spraying pesticides?  Avoiding pesticides is an important part of organic, but the foundation of the benefits to plants, animals, and humans is the soil. Healthy soil is a positive source of health. Healthy soil creates healthy plants with an exponential decrease in the need for pesticides (even botanically based sprays approved in organics).

Don’t you avoid all pesticides by growing a crop hydroponically indoors? No, pesticides approved for use in organic production are still used on a regular basis in most “organic” hydroponic greenhouses. The bigger the greenhouse, the more pesticides are usually applied. Furthermore, much of the hydroponic production of berries is happening outside in pots sitting on a barrier of black plastic.

Doesn’t hydroponic protect the soil underneath? No. In some certified organic hydroponic production, herbicides are sprayed on the ground immediately before laying out the weed barrier and setting down the pots. There is no transition time required for this production to be certified “organic” (unlike soil-based operations that must be free of toxic agrichemicals for a minimum of three years).

Doesn’t hydroponic production make it possible to grow food in urban areas? Most of the urban farming in the world, including a respectable percentage here in the U.S., takes place in the soil. People with low incomes don’t have access to the capital-intensive technology, and buildings, required to produce hydroponically.

Isn’t hydroponic food just as good nutritionally? No, it is impossible for a hydroponic solution to provide the same nutritional outcome as a complex soil ecosystem with its billions of bacteria, fungi, archaea, actinomycetes, insects, nematodes, protozoa, mites, worms, and mammals. Plants have evolved to get a perfect diet from this ecosystem, as have people.

Doesn’t local hydroponic production save energy?  No, most hydroponic production is highly energy intensive, requiring power to heat and cool the greenhouse and continuously pump liquid fertilizers to the plants. Furthermore, the majority of hydroponic production comes from huge, centralized facilities in the desert southwest of the U.S., Mexico, or major export countries like Holland. That requires copious amounts of diesel and aviation fuel in the distribution chain.

Doesn’t hydroponic production make it possible for small farms to compete? On the contrary, most hydroponic production is done on a massive scale with low-paid workers doing the hard work while absentee owners make the profits. This economically undercuts family-scale producers, both rural and urban.

Don’t organic farmers support allowing hydroponics? Absolutely not. The Organic Farmers Association has taken a strong stand against permitting hydroponics to be certified organic. Likewise, The Cornucopia Institute, on behalf of organic farmers, business people, and consumers, is on the record opposing “organic” hydroponic production as are the majority of other nonprofits involved with organics.

Isn’t hydroponics necessary to feed hungry people?  No. The greatest shortages of food have to do with economics, not with agriculture production practices.

Isn’t hydroponics necessary to save the climate? No. A healthy soil ecosystem is an essential part of the solution to climate change. Only by working with soil systems to build a soil carbon sponge can we reverse climate change. The soil carbon sponge can both sequester carbon and actively cool the earth, repairing a broken hydrological cycle.  Hydroponic production is extremely capital and energy intensive.

Our thanks to Dave Chapman, organic farmer-leader from Vermont, and founder of the Real Organic Project, for his material contribution to this document.