by Amber

Is Aquaponics Organic?

Did you know there’s a battle forming over organic hydroponic certification? Organic dirt farmers don’t think aquaponics or hydroponics qualifies, and in recent weeks called the USDA on the carpet because the head of the official organics program qualified aquaponic and hydroponic produce as ‘organic’ – opening the window to USDA Certification for soilless growers. Corporate organic farm board members are so put-out over this new competitive threat that they want the program chief’s resignation for ruling in favor of aquaponic and hydroponic produce certification.

Get a grip people… aquaponics uses fish waste, and sometimes some mineral supplements. How is this different than feeding soil-grown plants fish emulsion, manure, and adjusting the fertility of said soil with additives to raise or lower calcium, iron, and the like? It’s not really. The real difference is that they are open to the threats produced by the whims of Nature, while the aquaponic farmer is often using a controlled climate in a closed system. Some growers in warm climates like Hawaii and Southern California might be able to grow aquaponics outdoors, but that puts your crops in danger of damage by wind, free-ranging insects, diseases, in climate weather, and so on. Why would any savvy techno grower put their efficiency at stake like this? It’s much smarter to keep things as easy and disruption-free as possible, and at least house your aquaponic crops inside a greenhouse so you can harness the sun while protecting the harvest from everything else that could erupt.

Truth be known, there are synthetic inputs allowed in bringing organic produce to market. It’s not ‘all natural’ in the food supply. So, its surprising to hear comments like the following found in the Washington Post:

“Those heads of lettuce that are grown indoors? Yes, they’re beautiful. But it’s just a green leaf with water in it,” said Jeff Moyer, long-time farm director of the Rodale Institute, an organic research outfit. “They can’t possibly have the vitamins and minerals that lettuce grown in soil would have.”

Do we detect a little snobbery here? Surely this man is educated enough to know that vitamins and minerals are included in the nutrient solution for hydroponic lettuce, and that fish poop is just as much a plant nutrient as cow manure. If not, he needs to modernize his knowledge of the world of growing. There’s a lot more to hydroponic lettuce than a seed and some water! And he probably is aware of this, but admitting it wouldn’t help traditional organic farmers maintain their hold on the certified organic lettuce market… Can’t have that! Not when it commands about twice the price of the standard stuff.

By placing this comment in popular newspapers channels, Rodale flexes its muscles at influencing the consumer mindset. A little spin, if you will.

What Does Organic Really Mean?

It is defined by dictionaries as:



of, relating to, or derived from living matter.

Water is not dead matter, or synthetic either. In fact, it relates to the life of everything that lives on this planet.  Aquaponic fruits, vegetables, and greens or herbs are without a doubt an organic product. Saying that these aren’t organic foods is ridiculous.

Hydroponics is another matter, but there are organic hydroponic nutrients too, so one must define traditional hydroponic produce from hydroponic foods grown with organic nutes, which is no different than dividing crops sprayed with pesticides from those that are not.

What About Nutritional Value?

Once again, Rodale’s expert is feeding the public misinformation. Firstly, mainstream food supply tomatoes – organic or not – are picked green, and gas-ripened, which can’t possibly deliver the same amount of vitamins and minerals as a tomato picked at the fully ripe stage.  If anyone needs to retire, he should, because the nutritional value in hydroponic produce was tested 20-30 years ago, and found to be HIGHER than traditional soil-grown counterparts.

Research in Holland in the 1980s gives an indication of the influence of hydroponic nutrient solution strength on aspects of tomato quality. A rise in root environment solution strength from EC 2.6 to 3.5 mS/cm gave the following increases:

  • Shelf life in days 17.5 to 19.2
  • EC in fruit sap in mS/cm 5.8 to 6.2
  • Acids in fruit sap, mmol/L 75.0 to 84.0
  • Brix of fruit sap % (approx. sugars) 4.8 to 5.0

(From: “Overview of nutrition in hydroponics”, by Dr. Cees Sonneveld, Australian Hydroponics Conference, Melbourne, 1993.)

Another nutritional study published recently claimed that hydroponics produce was higher in certain vitamins than field grown produce. The study was carried out in San Jose, California, by Plant Research Technologies Incorporated. Several varieties of tomatoes and sweet peppers were tested for vitamins A, B1 (thiamin), B2 (riboflavin), B3 (niacin), B6 (pyridoxine), vitamin C and vitamin E. The study showed a dramatic increase in vitamins and minerals in hydroponics, in some cases up to 50% higher vitamin content.

Once again, big business working overtime to protect their ownership of the market. Hydroponic organic certification should be standard practice. Both aquaponic and hydroponic produce has equal the nutritional value to organic, and perhaps as you can see above – increased levels. Plus its pesticide-free, cuts water use to a small fraction, doesn’t disturb topsoil, and can be done year around anywhere. And, if the grower isn’t far away from you, like most big organic farms are today, your tomatoes stay on the vine a lot longer, which leads to bigger flavor and probably better nutritional value too. But big aquaponic growers also raise fresh fish in the same system too, instead of cleaning out the oceans to fill fish counters with protein-rich food.

Source: Washington Post

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  • John Loos says:

    Hey Amber,

    Where did you snap the photo titled “Serious LED grow Lighting”? I am in the Caribbean and I plan to radically expand my solar PV and Wind energy generation so I can create a room like the one pictured.

    Thank you, good article,


    • Tammy says:

      Hi John,

      That photo is actually taken at Phillips Lighting’s new CityFarm for working with LED light recipes. Click the photo will take you to the article all about what they’re doing to make it easier to grow food indoors with more flavor, juice, nutrients, etc. Light quality and color is a huge influence over what your indoor garden produces. READ IT HERE


The garden played a starring role from spring through fall in the house Amber was raised in. She has decades of experience growing plants from seeds and cuttings in the plot and pots.