Should hydroponics have a place in organic?

Should hydroponics have a place in organic?

Innovations in agriculture, especially those that sound particularly techy, often attract attention, financial investment and political soundbites.

Hydroponics is one such innovation that has garnered a lot of interest in recent years.


What is hydroponics?


It involves the growing of plants in artificial closed systems without soil. Plant nutrition is provided under tightly controlled conditions via carefully optimised nutrient solutions, which lead to drastic reductions in the amount of energy required to grow plants, and minimal losses of nutrients and waste.

In theory, hydroponic production can be carried out anywhere, including vertically to save space, and in the middle of cities to eliminate food miles.

Given its apparent eco-credentials, there have been strong calls for hydroponics to be accepted under organic standards.

At the Soil Association, we think this would take organic in the wrong direction, and is calling for the international organic movement to prohibit hydroponics in organic agriculture.

Why ban hydroponics in organic?

Organic production is about the interconnectivity of vital living ecosystems – it is a regenerative form of agriculture that both takes from and gives back to the soil. In fact, starting with the soil is at the heart of organic.

It’s rooted in the principle that healthy soil is essential for healthy crops, animals, people, and our environment, so it’s hard to see how a soil-less system could claim a rightful place in the organic movement.

Organic Agriculture is a production system that sustains the health of soils, ecosystems, and people. It relies on ecological processes, biodiversity and cycles adapted to local conditions, rather than the use of inputs with adverse effects. Organic Agriculture combines tradition, innovation, and science to benefit the shared environment and promote fair relationships and good quality of life for all involved.

There is, however, no doubt that hydroponics is a welcome departure from conventional pesticide-intensive agriculture and could have a significant place in a more sustainable food future.

Indeed, we will need to see a whole suite of solutions to address the challenges we face. Undoubtedly, bringing hydroponics under the banner of organic would create a marketing ‘glow’ for hydroponics, but it would be to the detriment of organic.

We’ve seen this in the United States, where weak legislative enforcement and lack of clarity on organic production rules has led to some hydroponic production being certified organic, which has split the movement and compromised the viability of farms that have stayed closer to the principles of organic in their production practices.

True solutions tend to have deeper roots – quite literally. We need wholesale shifts in our systems of food production if we’re to successfully tackle the climate crisis. We are confident that organic offers a real solution.

Clarity is key for organic consumers and producers

Part of the issue lies with the fact that the term organic is legislated, which is both a blessing and a curse. Organic can be misunderstood as being a set of restrictive rules that are only as good as the lawmakers make them. Organic is in fact much more than a set of rules. It’s a holistic approach to farming, with the legislation underpinning it only capturing a limited snapshot of the breadth and depth of what organic is really all about. Legislative requirements should set the minimum standards not constrain further advances.

This isn’t to say that legislation isn’t important, in fact it provides vital safeguards to make sure the key bases are covered and to prevent ‘greenwash’. It provides a market mechanism that directly enables consumers and policy-makers alike to support progressive, regenerative/agro-ecological farming practices that are better for people, animals and the planet. Fracturing the movement by either changing the definition of organic or starting from scratch with new terms and definitions risks losing the ground we’ve already made and invites greenwashing of business as usual.

Hydroponics has a place alongside organic

There are clear reasons to get excited about hydroponics, but this doesn’t mean it needs to be brought under the banner of organic.

Hydroponic production is completely dependent on external inputs and does not enhance living ecosystems that connect mineral soils, organic matter, billions of microbes fed by the roots of plants, soil animals, and the plants themselves. It’s also important to recognise that only a handful of crops are currently produced hydroponically – mainly salad crops, micro-greens and some soft fruits, so hydroponics will never be a complete solution.

Fundamentally, hydroponics is a different system of agriculture to organic, in definition and in practice. Both have a role to play but merging them could derail the meaning and integrity of organic.

For these reasons, the Soil Association is calling on the worldwide organic movement, including private and legislators to exclude hydroponic production within organic agriculture. In September, we are presenting a Motion on hydroponics to be debated and voted on by the international organic community at the IFOAM Organics International General Assembly.

Given the urgency with which we need to tackle the climate and biodiversity crises, silver bullet solutions seem attractive. But true solutions tend to have deeper roots – quite literally. We need wholesale shifts in our systems of food production if we’re to successfully tackle the climate crisis.

We are confident that organic offers a real solution. It offers a tried-and-tested, scalable solution which, given the right level of support and focus, will put us on the right track.

Find out more about what organic standards mean here