Does Organic Farming Need Soil? Aquaponics May Be Excluded

Image credit: Growing Power & Access to Aquaponics
Is aquaponics cruel? Are aquaponics kits a rip-off? Is aquaponics even an efficient way to feed ourselves? This and many other questions have been discussed here on TreeHugger anytime we post on this innovative method of food growing that combines fish farming with hydroponics. But one question hadn't occured to me—can aquaponics be organic? Some in the organic community believe not. And that belief is creating waves. To my mind, as long as pesticides are avoided, and sustainable feedstocks are used for the fish, then an efficient system that makes use of animal wastes certainly follows the spirit of organics. And if that system can avoid the tillage of soil, and make efficient use of water and space, then all the better, right?

It turns out that some people believe organic agriculture is absolutely impossible without soil. This has gotten aquaponics advocates deeply frustrated. Bevan Suits of Access to Aquaponics (the folks responsible for creating these aquaponics starter kits) writes over at The Daily Green that the USDA's is leaning against including non-soil based grow systems like hydroponics and aquaponics under the definition of organic agriculture. This would, he argues, be a huge mistake:

"A root does not care about "soil." It cares about light, heat, structure, water, oxygen, nitrates, phosphorous and potassium. The physical structure of dirt provides an anchor for the roots to grab, but other than that, earth is just a grow medium, the same as gravel or fiber. Give a plant as much of what it needs, and it will grow like crazy."

Furthermore, says Suits, this idea that organic agriculture requires soil is an argument based at least in part on religious or spiritual convictions, rather than logic:

"At least part of the answer comes from a religious belief that soil itself is sacred. According to one NOSB Board member, soil-less systems in Europe and Canada are not permitted to show the organic label because some Board members apparently put belief ahead of reason. The biodynamic movement is tilted in this direction, based on aspects of Rudolph Steiner's philosophy."

Oh Lord, I can see the folks who believe environmentalism is a religion laughing their butts off as I type. But it does raise an important debate—I have usually bought organic, not because I believe that produce must always be grown in a certain manner, but because I believe following cycles observed in nature—including the recycling of nutrients and maintaining the natural ecological balance for pest control—is more likely to be more sustainable in the long term.

But I am well aware that plenty of practices that are used routinely in organics—soil tillage in particular—can be extremely detrimental to the environment. And while I maintain that organic agriculture has many advantages over conventional practices, I'd be kidding myself if I stated that organics is always better, or that it is based purely on a scientific understanding of best practice sustainability. In the end, part of organic agriculture is indeed based on a belief system—all be it a belief system that is rooted in a practical and proven approach to growing food.

If I talk to a knowledgeable, thoughtful farmer who tells me he sprays his crop for very specific reasons, and that the alternative would be to purchase organic produce flown in from Kenya, then I'm likely to bypass my preference for organic in favor of buying from someone I trust. Yet I don't expect the definition of organic to be redefined—I just pick and choose who and what I buy based on the best information I have available. But plenty of other consumers are not likely to ask such questions—so inclusion under as influential a labeling system as organics would be a great boon to alternative growing systems like aquaponics.

So where does that leave aquaponics and hydroponics? The question is a little like the debate over whether air freighted produce can be organic. If you were to ask the average consumer, they would most likely say that organic produce should be sustainably produced, and contain no man-made pesticide or herbicide residues. But would they insist that it should be soil grown? I suspect not.

In the end any certification system like organics can be a blunt tool—and some practices that can be sustainable when done right will be banned because there will be plenty of people doing them wrong. But I for one find it a shame that a system like aquaponics that has the potential to save huge amounts of farmland and water, to relocalize agriculture in a big way, and to reduce dependence on overfishing is excluded from organic labeling because of its disconnection from the soil. Surely a better move would be to develop organic standards for non-soil based agriculture too?

More on Aquaponics
Access to Aquaponics: Starter Kits for $499.99
Aquaponics USA: Ready-to-Use Aquaponics Kits for Home Fish Farming
Is Aquaponics Cruel?
The TH Interview: Brian Naess of Snowcamp Aquaponics
Snowcamp Aquaponics: DIY Fish Farming With Zero Experience
DIY Aquaponics - A Video Round Up
Growing Power Milwaukee
The Urban Aquaculture Centre
Aquaponics: The Urban Food Revolution

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