One of the fiercest debates in hydroponics and agriculture in general, centers around what the best way to raise crops in a sustainable, healthy fashion is. Most people nowadays have settled on accepting "organic" produce as the superior product. Let me be clear, organic produce is better than large agro-business produced crops for sure, but it's too low of a standard, one which hydroponics easily surpasses. Here is why:
What Defines Organic?
I could write a 100 page dissertation on what actually constitutes organic depending on which organization you ask, but I will spare you that as there have already been many exhaustive papers on that topic.
Instead, I am going to talk about specifically why hydroponics is not organic, and why that is a good thing.
Organic farmers seek to farm their crops in a more sustainable way, in a manner that is free of harmful chemicals such as pesticides, irradiating processes and a variety of other practices that I think everyone can agree are harmful to our food. They also seek to be good stewards of the land, recycling waste into compost, rotating crops to prevent erosion etc etc. This is all good, but we can do better, it's just important to understand that some of the buzzwords demonized by the organic crowd such as "chemicals" are misleading, and following pure organic "principles" actually leads to less healthy and complete produce.
Refined Vs. Unrefined Minerals
To be certified as organic, you can't use any refined mineral salts or refined substances in your fertilizer solutions, even food grade ones that are known to be superior to unrefined mineral salts (and equally as healthy). This is the biggest beef I have with organics, because this isn't actually a good thing like many would assume.
Basically, unrefined minerals don't dissolve well and often times contain harmful impurities, as they are not refined (Refined: the process of removing impurities). The philosophy behind the "organic" designation is that natural is better, even when the natural components are toxic or harmful to human/plant health. It is natural so it is "okay". I respectfuly disagree. While my personal philosophy is that the closer to the earth the stuff we eat is, the better it is for you, there are some advances in modern science that we would do well to embrace, as we can enjoy the same natural benefits without the often times toxic impurities that sneak into "natural" things.
Here are just a few examples of some of the impurities I am referring to for those interested:
- Mined phosphate (unrefined) contains excessive amounts of fluoride, a substance that is good for dental health in small quantities, but which is harmful to humans in excess.
- Mined phosphate often contains small amounts of radioactive elements such as radium (which release the ever feared radon gas), which is unsurprisingly also not good for human health.
- Chloride, a substance also permitted in organic cultivation, while naturally mined, is not good for plants or soil depending on the quantity.
- Many soils used by organic farmers are also rich in selenium, which can accumulate in plant tissue and produce (which you then eat, and it starts accumulating in you).
When refined, the good parts of these "natural" gardening products are retained, while the above listed impurities (plus a laundry list of others) are all removed entirely. Unfortunately, to be organic you are not allowed to refine these impurities out of your fertilizer or soil solutions. Hydroponics of course uses quality refined nutrients which contain all of the good parts, with none of the bad parts, but we will touch more on that in a second.
"The Western Fertilizer Handbook, an important resource for American farmers, points out that many gastro-intestinal illnesses can be traced back to manures used in organically grown crops. In the summer of 1995, a serious outbreak of salmonella poisoning resulted from an organic cantaloupe crop growing in soil fertilized with fresh chicken manure. The rinds of the melons had become contaminated and the bacteria caused serious intestinal illness for many consumers."
Why Vegans, Vegetarians, And Animal Rights Activists Should Care:
Many people who are concerned with the use of animal byproducts in their food would probably be interested to know that most organic crops utilize things such as blood, bone, horn, hoof, and feather meals to grow their food, as meals of this type are the primary nutrient source for organic farmers. With hydroponics, we are able to use the same high quality nutrients without extracting them from animals or animal byproducts.
Why Hydroponics Than?
Hydroponics accomplishes all of the main goals set out by organic farmers, but takes it a step further to a level which is frankly impossible to ever accomplish with soil gardening of any variety.
With hydroponics for example, we grow in water and do not use any amount of soil. Thus, soil erosion is an issue which is eradicated entirely.
When it comes to nutrients, unrefined mineral salts and animal-meal products don't dissolve well in water, therefore we use high quality refined nutrients which are soluble in water. That means none of the baddies listed above are present in our fertilizers. Data from Europe, Israel, Canada, Australia, and the United States have defined precise combinations of minerals for a variety of crops. In fact, in hydroponics we have nutrients down to such a science that when we list what elements are contained in a fertilizer product, they are measured in mS (millisiemens) and uS (microsiemens), a system of measuring by electrical conductivity and calculation BY ATOMIC WEIGHT.
All of this really helps to illuminate why hydroponics are the superior way of food production; you get to have near complete control of the environment in which the plant grows, therefore you can target it with specific nutrients, light spectrums, and regulate everything that comes into contact with the plant, all while using natural products and saving the planet in a way organic farming methods never could.
Saving the planet?
That's right. As a planet, we face a variety of obstacles in our near future. This is why so many people are going "green" and trying to do things in a more sustainable way which will have less of a profound impact on the planet going forward. What does hydroponics have to offer?
- 90% less water: Hydroponics grows plants in water, not soil. Because of the controlled environment, and due to the fact that we can continually supplement water with nutrients which will not be lost to the depths of the earth as soon as we pour it on our roots, we are able to conserve this very precious resource that allows all life to be sustained. Wikipedia puts it well: The water stays in the system and can be reused - thus, a lower water requirement.
- It is possible to control the nutrition levels in their entirety - thus, lower nutrition requirements
- No nutrition pollution is released into the environment because of the controlled system
No Pesticides Need Apply
The above listed are just the tip of the iceburg. For starters, pests become a nearly non-issue, as you are not growing in soil (which is where pests live). In my experience one can expect perhaps 5% of the pests in hydroponics than you would get with soil gardening. They are raised from the earth, not in or near the soil, and therefore slugs and all the other baddies who live in this environment simply do not have the same access or proximity to your plants as they would if you were growing in the soil
Guess what that means? That's right, NO PESTICIDES. Usually a spray bottle with some water and horticulture soap is more than enough to get rid of the few pests that remain. One year I just bought some ladybugs and they took care of everything for me, whilst simultaneously making the garden more appealing to my 4 year old.
Healthier Food, And More Of It
Since you have complete control of the growing environment and the nutrients which your plants will be exposed to, it is trivially easy to produce plants which simply outperform their soil grown counterparts in both flavor and nutrition. The simple fact of the matter is that produce grown via hydroponics has a higher amount of nutrients, and it tastes better. Period.
In 1994 a test was commissioned by an investment group to determine the vitamin and mineral content of hydroponically grown crops in comparison to soil grown crops, both organic and nonorganic. Plant Research Technologies Laboratory in San Jose,California, analyzed tomatoes and sweet peppers; those hydroponically grown used General Hydroponics' "Flora" nutrients. The hydroponic produce showed a significant increase in vitamins and minerals beneficial to human health over the soilgrown produce. This data indicates the importance of a calibrated nutrient solution. The crops had been grown following the Dutch recommendation for hydroponic tomatoes and sweet peppers, and not only were they of higher nutritional value, the flavor was reported to be outstanding.
The hydroponic crops were further analyzed to search for chemicals on the EPA’s "priority pollutant list", of which, none were found.
Couple this with the fact that hydroponics indisputably has higher yields than it's soil grown counterparts, and you are left with the realization that you simply get WAY more (and way healthier) food in a smaller space than you do with soil. Let's let our friends at the University Of Arizona School of Agriculture provide us with some data:
"Yield data have been reported in the literature for years; typical yields for crops grown hydroponically in desert greenhouses in the American southwest are compared with typical “good” yields for open field crops in Table 2."
"As the data indicate, the yield per crop is higher in greenhouses than in OFA because of the optimal growing conditions, balanced plant nutrient, etc., provided in controlled environments.
Because of the controlled environment, year-round production can be achieved, whereas in the open field crop production is only seasonal."
Hydroponics Can Be Organic Too
For those who really love being able to say they grow "Organic", hydroponics has something for them too. There are a variety of brand name Organic Hydroponic Nutrients which can be used which do meet the requirements for being "organic", though I would argue that you are trading performance for the "organic" designation. These products are usually made from things like chicken scratch, liquid bat guano etc so keep in mind they are technically animal byproduct containing in their nature.
For my DIY crowd: One alternative method which I personally find to be successful is to make a compost tea by taking your own compost and filtering it through some water and then straining, thus retaining the nutrients the compost has, while also making it a nutrient dense liquid which can easily be introduced into your reservoir for hydroponic growing.
If you are looking to use Organic Hydroponic nutrients, I recommend you start out with the General Hydroponics Organic Nutrient Stater Set pictured below.