Branding Hydroponicsl

For hydroponic growers, certified organic produce is a label too far away. Why? Because, according to the organic philosophy, food not grown in soil cannot be organic, even if no pesticides are used. The notion comes from the religious belief that soil itself is sacred. The organic philosophy draws on aspects of Rudolph Steiner’s 19th Century theory of anthroposophy that postulates the holistic development and interrelationship of soil and plants as a self-nourishing system without other inputs. Almost all organic certification authorities worldwide make it clear that production systems must be soil-based and hydroponics and aquaponics are not permitted. The Biological Farmers Association in Australia and some US States recognise the status of organic systems in the absence of soil.

What soilless growers should be doing is developing their own unique brand. The quality and yields of hydroponic fruits and vegetables are far higher than organic and conventionally grown produce, they have the same nutritional value as any other, and they are perfectly healthy. The fertilisers come from the ground and are refined to make them available for plant uptake. Relatively small quantities of inorganic fertilisers are required and transport and application costs are low. It also means inorganic fertilisers can be formulated to apply the appropriate ratio of nutrients to meet plant growth and fruiting requirements. By comparison, organic fertilisers (animal waste and plant residues) are relatively inefficient because they contain low concentrations of nutrients and large volumes of material needs to be transported and spread over fields to overcome deficiencies. Also, organic fertilisers take time to break down into the inorganic forms needed to become available to plants. In case you missed it, plant roots absorb inorganic nutrient ions; not organic fertilisers. The difference is clever marketing by purists who imply that fruits and vegetables not grown in the bosom of Mother Earth are somehow tainted. What nonsense!

Many fruits and vegetables on retail shelves are grown hydroponically, but the question of plant health and nutritional value seldom comes up. This should be an opportunity for the protected cropping industry to differentiate their products from organic and conventionally grown produce. It won’t come by way of the supermarkets that decline to differentiate between hydroponic and conventionally grown produce, but it is an opportunity for small retail operators to distinguish their fresh produce from that of supermarkets.

If the protected cropping industry has issues over what is and what isn’t organic, so too does the organic industry have issues with soil-based organic greenhouse production, where considerable amounts of nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium need to be applied to the soil for fruiting crops to be productive. These quantities may be more than double the maximum levels according to an EU directive, and eventually much of these chemicals find their way into the ground water. If organic growers use the quantities of nutrients approved by the EU, then there is a marked loss of yield. This is only one of many issues facing the organic greenhouse industry and its sustainability. For more information see our article Why not Organic Hydroponics? in this issue.

Steven Carruthers

PH&G November/December 2011 – Issue 121