17. Hydroponics And/Versus Organic Agriculture

In the last few days, both newspapers I subscribe to (the New York Times and the Boston Globe) have featured articles on an issue now under contention with the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB):  whether or not hydroponic food production should be labeled “organic.”

I’ve already mentioned hydroponics in a previous post (#11), and for feeding the world there are many good things about it.  Hydroponics can produce food in urban areas and industrialized sites, close to where people live and in addition to what farm fields grow.  It can be done without pesticides and herbicides and therefore produce food without toxic residues.  And it can be done with limited amounts of water, since it can continually recirculate the water it uses.  Its big potential negative is very high energy costs for lighting and climate control as well as pumping the water about.  And it also has costs for plant nutrients, both the big three (nitrogen, potassium, and phosphorus) and all the micronutrient minerals that plants need to really thrive.

It is significant, in fact, that produce is only nutritious if the growing plants are given all the minerals that we need to get from them.  It’s also significant that nutritional science is not yet perfect.  When I began writing about food in the early 1990s, for example, we knew about beta-carotene, but no one had yet really heard about anthocyanins or zeaxanthins or sulfurofanes — the whole array of phytonutrients that we now know we need to get from produce.  What else might plants supply that we don’t even know about yet?  And how can hydroponic growers provide the inputs that plants need to make all nutrients, if we don’t yet know everything that plants should supply?

In-ground organic production, in contrast, relies on nature to pick up the slack in our knowledge-base, and supports nature in the process.  It adds organic matter to the soil — compost, manure, the “green manure” of dug-in plant material, such food waste as coffee grounds — and encourages the whole range of soil microorganisms and pollinators and beneficial insects (and thus also supports the birds and toads and so on that eat insects).  And at the same time that organic agriculture supports the whole biome, it sequesters huge amounts of carbon in the soil.  It does use more water than hydroponics and needs expanses of clean land.  And in any case, it is qualitatively different than hydroponic growing, and some of those differences form real advantages for both the nutritive value of produce and for life on Earth.

My own take on the controversy is that both growing techniques are useful but that they are distinctly different, so the NOSB should create a label for hydroponics that blesses it with a similar-but-different logo than is used for organics.  For from the point of view of ending hunger, in-ground organic agriculture and para-organic hydroponic growing both are good, both together are needed, and both are part of the solution.  For both together increase the overall food supply more than either one alone.

Louise “Gentle Bee” Quigley


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