THE FINAL WORD: an opinion piece

Dr Mike Nichols Looks at the arguments for including Hydroponics and aquaponics in the certified organics system.

The world of organic horticulture is a very complex scene. In New Zealand, anyone can sell fruit and vegetables produce as organically grown, provided that they do not state that its production has been “certified” as organically grown by one of the organisations approved to give such certification under the Demeter or Biogro label.

On the world scene the situation is even more complex, with many countries having their own “organic standards”, and over the whole scene is IFOAM (International Federation Organic Agricultural Members), which appears to have little power to make any country do exactly as it wishes.

In the United States the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) has recently deferred a vote for six months on whether hydroponics and aquaponics can be certified as organic under the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) certification system.

The argument (simplistically) in favour is that aquaponics /hydroponics can use volcanic rock (for example) as the growing medium, and supply all the plant nutrients from organic sources, and use acceptable organic methods for pest and disease control, so how is this not an organic system?

Certainly, volcanic rock is eventually one of the sources of soil, and peat (another possible growing medium) is actually defined as a soil. Even cocopeat (coir) is a plant-derived medium, and certainly is organic. Provided that the growers use organically derived nutrients, it is difficult to see why such a system should not be acceptable, except to the dyed in the wool traditionalists. In fact, sustainability is one of the key planks of organics, and both aquaponics and hydroponics are significantly more sustainable than simply putting organic matter in the soil for the unused nutrients to be leached through the soil profile into the water table, to drain away and eventually pollute the river systems. Both are re-circulating systems, in which the nutrients are retained.

Some years ago I did some work for an Australian company that wished to grow greenhouse vegetables hydroponically. We determined that getting a USDA organic certificate in Australia was no real problem, provided that we followed the USDA guidelines, however, we would not be able to market the product as organically certified in Australia (funny old world!).

In the USA, cancelling the organic certification of those hydroponic/aquaponic farms already certified could have huge financial implications, and in addition, damage the faith of consumers who buy organic.

One suggestion has been to establish an organic certification sub-set, and call all hydroponic/aquaponic produced crops as bioponic, ie grown under organic principles but not in the soil.

Whatever the final decision there will certainly be some very unhappy producers in the USA, as no decision can satisfy the two extreme points of view.

Of course, if the consumer had the final say, it is almost certain that the majority would favour including hydroponics and aquaponics in the certified organics system. After all, in surveys, freedom from potentially toxic chemicals is usually ranked as being a major factor in paying a premium to purchase organically certified fruit and vegetables.

About the author
Dr Mike Nichols is a retired lecturer from Massey University and a regular contributor to Practical Hydroponics & Greenhouses magazine. He has travelled around the world consulting on horticulture and is one of only 25 honorary members of the International Society for Horticultural Science (ISHS). Ω

PH&G June 2017 / Issue 180