hands holding plant sapling in the rain

[This last spring] I trundled off to yet another National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) meeting in DC. This is a place where a dedicated assortment of organic disciples (and hooligans) spends countless hours deliberating and commentating on the intricacies of organic production. How to balance the needs of the farmer and manufacturer with the expectations of the consumer and be true to the spirit of the organic regulations? The discussion is sometimes laborious and often pointedly impassioned. The latest feverish dialogue spurred on by a cavalcade of differing views is: where, if anywhere, do new ways of producing food fit into the organic world? Do Hydroponics, Aquaponics or Bioponics belong?  

What the heck are all these Ponics anyway?


Hydroponics is a way of growing plants in mineral nutrient water solutions completely without soil. Sometimes the tender roots are placed in perlite or gravel to provide support, and they are fed with compost tea and liquid fertilizers. This soilless culture dates back as early as 1627 when Francis Bacon published his work on growing terrestrial plants without soil. One of the earliest successes of hydroponics occurred on Wake Island, a rocky atoll in the Pacific Ocean used as a refueling stop for Pan American Airlines. Hydroponics was used there in the 1930s to grow vegetables for the passengers because there is no soil on Wake Island. This soilless way of growing food does have its place, but should it be included in organic agriculture?


Aquaponics is a system of producing food that combines aquaculture (raising fish, snails, or prawns) and hydroponics (growing plants in water). It’s quite an elegant closed system whereby the fish produce waste which, in turn, circulates to feed the plants which, in turn, purify the water for the next school of aquatic generations. The Aztecs cultivated agricultural islands known as chinampas in a system considered by some to be the first form of aquaponics where they raised plants on stationary (and sometimes movable) islands in lake shallows. I’ve seen it used in urban settings where people who lack access to whole foods can produce chard, kale, tilapia, and lettuce in their own backyard. Should a certified organic option be available for those who want to grow their own food in a clean and healthy way that provides the least harm to the earth water, soil, and biological communities?


Bioponics is a term that first touched my ears at this NOSB meeting. Bioponics is a modified hydroponic system that uses the same organic inputs, processes, and principles as organic field growers. Commonly, bioponic growers use containers as small as a bucket or as big as a cement-lined urban landscape. The containers are filled with organic compost, coconut husks, or other compostable plant materials. The plants are fed both solid and liquid-based organic fertilizers and inoculated with compost tea and earthworms. All soil-dwelling organisms commonly found in soil-based agriculture can thrive in this compost or bioponic growing media in a container system. A good number of our winter organic tomatoes, peppers, and cucumbers are certified organic in these container-based systems that maintain the site soil with no runoff or groundwater contamination. Should these products be stripped of organic certification?

What do the organic regulations say?

According to the Organic Food Production Act 1990 (OFPA) “Soil fertility – An organic plan shall contain provisions designed to foster soil fertility, primarily through the management of the organic content of the soil through proper tillage, crop rotation, and manuring.”

Then, in 2000, the USDA regulations further define soil based systems: Soil fertility and crop nutrient management practice standard: • (a) The producer must select and implement tillage and cultivation practices that maintain or improve the physical, chemical, and biological condition of soil and minimize soil erosion. • (b) The producer must manage crop nutrients and soil fertility through rotations, cover crops, and the application of plant and animal materials.

Confusion Reigns

There has been a bucketful of confusion around these “Ponics” due to the fact that in 1995 the NOSB recommended that “Hydroponic production in soilless media may be labeled certified organic if all provisions of the OFPA have been met.” Then in 2010, a different NOSB recommended that hydroponics systems should be prohibited!

Currently, the USDA organic regulations do not prohibit any of the “Ponics.” Certification to the USDA organic standards is allowed, as long as the certifier can demonstrate it is certifying in a way that complies with the standard.

In my mind, this debate about soil and soilless is getting rather murky. As we move into the future to feed the 9 billion in all its varied climates and conditions, as new emerging ways of producing food are introduced, should we incorporate some of them into the organic family? Should we hold steadfast to what has always been done and cling only to the soil in the ground? Should we allow some innovative food systems to be certified to ensure they are chemical free, healthy, and promote ecological balance while conserving biodiversity? Should systems that embody organic principles of sustainability through water conservation and local access to nutritious food be kept out of the organic tent because they look different? The issue is indeed complex, and I don’t have an answer. I do know that livelihoods hang on both sides the debate.

It always raises my dander when people I know, who care deeply for the integrity of organic, come to the NOSB meetings, deliver their ardent and eloquent point of view, and then promptly leave. I believe the purpose of the NOSB forum is to make your point heard as well as listen to the other side. There is merit in listening and learning while holding firmly to a presupposed notion. It is possible that a middle way may be had. Until we learn to honor not only the white and the black of an issue but also the possibility of gray, only then can we make progress.

What’s your take on this dirt?

You can view the NOSB presentation here from the two subcommittees who have diverging opinions.

“The secret of change is to focus all of your energy, not on fighting the old but on building the new.”  ~Socrates

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About The Author

Melody Meyer's picture

Melody is the Vice President of Policy and Industry Relations for United Natural Foods (UNFI). In this role she is responsible for communicating and educating all stakeholders on critical organic issues. Her Blog www.organicmattersblog.com covers a range of organic and sustainable food issues.

She is the executive director of the UNFI Foundation which is dedicated to funding non-profit organizations that promote organic agriculture  www.unfifoundation.org. Melody serves as Secretary of the Board of Directors for the Organic Trade Association www.ota.com.

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