by Amber

Is Hydroponic Organic?

The USDA Thinks So

The argument over what can and what cannot be called organic food came into sharp focus this week as farmers staged a protest, dumping compost in a parking lot and gathered a crowd complete with KEEP THE SOIL IN ORGANIC campaign signs, and action group T-shirts. The problem they want to call attention to is the USDA’s change in the process of what growing methods can be used to be able to label your harvest as organic. They’re not happy that hydroponically grown foods are being labeled the same as their soil-grown version. In fact, there is more than one lawsuit in progress against the National Organic Program over this change taking place without consulting the organic farmers.

I Love Dirt

It’s awesome stuff. Anyone who gardens is well aware of that. Yes, there’s a profound difference between soil that produces food using conventional farming methods that employ synthetic agriculture fertilizers, and embraces chemical pesticides to control insects and weeds – as opposed to soil that is free of it. It’s great that more and more farms are leaving the industrial ways behind, and taking up the soil stewardship approach that organic farming is. If you want to be sure there’s no GMOs or Roundup in what you’re eating, you definitely want to see that ORGANIC label on the food you buy.


There are reasons that this stance, this fight against safe food not being labeled in a manner that consumers identify as free of scary chemicals without a bunch of research is heading down the wrong road.


There is already so much confusion in the food system – do we really need to create an entirely new category for real food that was grown without pesticides soillessly? If so, then let’s continue splitting hairs.

What Is Soil?

No one who grows in potting mix/growth media should be allowed to label their produce organic either, because there is no soil in it. Technically, food harvested from roof farms, and any container setup is soilless growing too. You can’t put dirt on a roof; it’s too heavy. You can’t put in a pot, tub, crate, or box planter; it won’t drain well. It would be interesting to know how many of those opposing this change use fake soil instead of the real stuff. Sure, most of the materials that make up that potting media will someday be soil, but it’s not when they’re growing in it. And when it does totally decompose, it turns to muck – a poor growing situation due to little to no drainage, and no air for roots. Adding compost is great, but you can’t add much, and it’s still not dirt… yet.

Some organic farmers employ both soil and hydroponic methods to bring consumers fresh, locally grown food. So, what’s the problem? Colin from Archi’s Acres in Escondido, California explains this beautifully, “The science and the processes are exactly the same. There are a lot of people who have a religious belief, almost, around soil.” Please, manna hasn’t fallen from heaven in thousands of years, and if it started up again, the EPA would claim it.


On a basic level, it’s true that feeding the soil, and not the plants is the thing that separates organic growing from conventional agriculture methods. In doing so, using natural materials, they’re allowing the soil to remain living, while the heavy use of synthetic fertilizers by the other camp feeds the plant and kills the soil. But if you look at biodynamic farming, and weigh it against organic methods, you’ll see that this is even better yet – it’s even more scientific, more tuned in to crop and soil needs as a bigger picture, while organic growing is more like micro-managing the soil with a limited set of tools and data. It grew out of organic growing, but fine-tuned that by integrating earth energies and knowledge from the past. Biodynamic growing is the holistic approach.

Since aquaponics is a form of hydroponic growing, and the plants get their nutrition from fish waste, then how is that not organic? Some people use coarse sand as their growing medium in aquaponics, while others use clay pebbles. Real soil has all these things in it, but it’s the stuff between clay and sand that grows the best crops, because sand is basically an inert material, while clay particles are so small that plants have a difficult time extracting what they need, and getting air at the roots along with proper drainage.

And straight hydroponics? It’s come a long way in a few years, and there are organic hydroponic nutrients, though they are relatively new. Then there’s the perceived issue with standard hydro nutes. What are they? Elemental salts, not that much different from what plants take up in the soil. Yes, they’re lab-created, but soilless hydroponics is an entirely different environment than growing in the ground. The reason that standard commercial fertilizers kill the soil is the salts build up. In hydroponics this can’t happen, because the method uses a light, continual nutrient supply that is always solvent, focused on each stage of growth, and kept perfectly balanced. In conventional agriculture, the crop is heavily fertilized in spring, and it’s only solvent when there is rain.


Organic soils have a healthy population of microorganisms that allow plants to access nutritional needs at a maximum. That’s what they mean when they say it’s “living soil,” and it’s what is missing when soil is said to be dead. Building the soil with organic inputs is what makes it more productive, developing plants robust enough to have improved pest and disease resistance… as long as the weather complies. But you can use microorganisms in hydroponics too. In fact, many growers who use standard hydroponic nutrients add vortex-brewed compost tea to give their crops for the benefits that all these microscopic soil creatures provide to plants and the harvest.

Quality Control

Because of exposure to the elements, soil growing gives you little control over what can happen to your crop. Indoor farming in greenhouses or buildings give the grower total control over the environment, which can influence many things we look for in food. Temperature, available sunlight, and moisture levels can all influence flavor in some crops, but only indoor agriculture has tight control over  these factors. Additionally, they are working on developing techniques that combine grow light recipes and nutrient input that will let hydro farmers adjust beneficial elements in their produce that will give you bonus flavor and health benefits. It’s simply a lot more scientific than field-grown foods will ever be, and will probably be the key to a far healthier food supply in the future.

The Real Issue?

It’s three-fold. First, it increases competition at farm markets, for CSA subscribers, and in the grocery store. They don’t like seeing the same fruits and vegetables they grow sold at cheaper prices that is also scary-chemical-free. Secondly, some organic farmers cannot see that growing healthy food doesn’t have to include soil. Soil that will be totally lost in a few decades if farms continue to keep it bare but for the crop plants. They perceive hydroponic farming as being unnatural, easier, and less time consuming and labor intensive. But there are organic hydroponic growing methods, and farming is farming. It takes expensive equipment and a lot of work to get that harvest to market – no matter how you grow it. Hydroponic farming in a controlled environment just makes it less costly to supply the demand, and often comes from a local or regional source. Thirdly, they weren’t consulted. The USDA didn’t ask their permission to broaden the terms of what organic food can be.

Should the USDA have gotten feedback from the growers that organic definitions were created for? Yes. However, it’s not the first time such a thing has happened in government, and it won’t be the last. But in this case it’s really serves the interests of consumers. Natural food can be grown faster hydroponically, more efficiently, more reliably, without pesticides, and deliver a bigger harvest. It’s high quality produce available super fresh, and year around at a lower price – no matter what climate you live in. One grievance aired is that these organic hydroponic foods on store shelves are imported, but that’s free trade, and has nothing to do with how said food was grown. If you consult the label past the organic part, it’s easy to make sure it was pretty locally grown too.

Organic tomatoes picked green in winter, shipped to a frozen region, and gas ripened to be colorful have no flavor, questionable nutritional values compared to vine-ripened, and command a ridiculous price. Just because they’re not processed doesn’t mean they’re fresh! No thanks, I’ll stick to hydroponic tomatoes grown in my part of the world after frost descends.

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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.