Food seems to present never-ending dilemma these days, particularly food that we are sure is safe to eat. Organic food is the easiest way of assuring you and your family aren’t in danger of consuming potentially harmful substances. No one wants GMOs, pharmaceuticals, chemicals, and pesticides on their plate. It’s also a lot healthier for the world we live in – from vital water resources to the air we breathe. Not to mention being better for animals, birds, aquatic life, and pollinators. But recently, identifying certified organic food is being questioned… for all the wrong reasons.
The phrase, “food like grandma made it,” is often flung about. But when was this grandmother a housewife? Farms start using the banned pesticide DDT in 1945, and application soon spread to home gardens and orchards. So, while meals at grandma’s house came from home-preserved ingredients, and those canned commercially before the age of synthetic everything – the escape from DDT is questionable. Of course, if you’re a millennial, then grandma’s food was definitely chock full of undesirable things. Some, perhaps a far sight better than today’s industrial food inclusions, but others no longer allowed. This mental image in reality would be better applied to your great or great-great grandmother’s day. As in before the end of World War II, when synthetic fertilizer was first introduced to farming.
At that point in human history, there was a lot more land than people, many farms had no electricity, and working the land with horses was more common than tractors. There certainly was no shortage of water. Automated crop irrigation didn’t even exist. But hydroponics did, and fascinated everyone. Still, this growing food and flowers with water instead of soil thing was kind of like that new fad of motorized washing machines, not really needed, yet certainly something for the future.
Fast forward 76 years to 2016. Now we know that DDT was very harmful, and remains in the soil for 100 years from a single application. Everyone has electric everything, including automated crop irrigation. We have water resources laced with everything from pesticides and fertilizers to industrial chemicals and prescription drugs. Farmland is losing soil at alarming rates, increasing flooding, and changing the oceans. Even organic food is tainted with glyphosate – that infamous weed killer best known as Roundup. Yet, a war is taking place inside the USDA National Organic Program over hydroponic, aquaponic, and container-grown fruits and vegetables obtaining organic certification.
There are things that are drastically wrong with this picture. The safest food available comes from closed system growing – as in pesticide-free hydroponics, aquaponics, and greenhouse container production. Also known as indoor farming, these operations have protection from insects, air pollution, acid rain, and weather-related plant diseases and crop failures. Meanwhile, traditional organic farming in the soil is without a doubt an open system operation. The crops are totally exposed to all forms of environmental pollutants and growing problems that require treatment of some form. How else would they stay in business? As anyone with a veggie patch knows, growing a harvest free of all imperfections without spraying something is almost impossible. Yes, insecticides and fungicides approved for organic growing exist, but some things turn out not so safe later on.
That bucolic organic farm can also produce food in soil that received past applications of other long-term residual pesticides. No one has tested for every farm chemical used since 1945. The cost would be phenomenal, though the certifying agent might test for certain suspect things. Three years is long enough to build soil biology, but it’s not long enough to erase things like Atrazine, Roundup, DDT, and other common farm pesticides. And if the land had sewage sludge applied before transitioning to organic? That’s really scary.
Then we have the issue of efficient use of water and sustainability. You eat as healthy as possible to sustain your life, but what quality of life will your future hold if you don’t have enough water? Soil-based farming goes through incredible amounts of water annually to bring that food to your grocer’s shelves or farm market. Meanwhile, progressive closed system farming uses 70-90% less water, and produces more food per acre… growing the same crops. And indoor farms produce a harvest year around, which is far better than importing foods from other parts of the world.
And what about the topsoil loss problem? Closed system farming is soilless. There is no topsoil loss, and no possibility of residual pesticides. And lets not forget about the amount of fossil fuel expended in bringing that organic produce to market from land-based farms. Not just the transportation, but the tractors, harvesters, and all their other agricultural equipment. It’s not like these operations use no electricity either, though they love to point to the incredible energy waste of indoor farming.
I could go on and on, but I won’t. It’s not that I’m against soil growing, I love it, but I’m not a market grower. However, I do have issues with soil-based organic food judged as superior, or the only true form of organic.
In reality, organic food is grown without synthetic pest and disease control agents using plant nutrients not harmful to the Earth or humans. It must also test totally free of pesticides and other contaminants. Yet, organic products from soil-based farms do contain these undesirable things. The only reason that they use mineral salts in hydroponic systems is because a) organic nutrients mess up the plumbing and emitters, and b) it is the most accurate way to deliver the perfect balanced diet to the plants. It’s not harmful to eat, though it’s not good for soil biology, but soil and nutrients never meet in responsible closed system growing. Meanwhile, produce grown with bioponics or aquaponics is definitely organic, by every interpretation of the phrase… except to soil-based growers.
And, is organic food really the most beneficial to your health? Certainly, when locally grown, but if imported from several hundred to a thousand miles away? Every hour passed between the moment of harvest and the time when you eat it, the beneficial nutrition and compounds continue to decrease. So, is pesticide-free hydroponic lettuce from a local indoor farm a better organic food than soil-grown lettuce shipped across a country or over an ocean a healthier choice?
Last, but not least, everyone deserves healthy food, regardless of where they live and their income level. Traditional organic farming is wonderful, but it doesn’t meet the needs of all people throughout the seasons in today’s world. The 21st century definition of organic food really should include locally grown, year-around availability at affordable prices. Doing that means sizable harvest increases possible in any location and climate. Hydroponic and aquaponic farming do fill the gaps left by thinking in past tense.