Straight from the fields

Ponics vs. Soil: An Organics Debate

The current question being hotly debated and closely monitored by the produce industry is whether or not “ponic” produce—encompassing hydro, aero, aqua, and container growing, at present—can be labeled organic. As of today, the answer is yes—if all other conditions are met for organic, everything except for aeroponics (growing plants in an air or mist environment without the use of soil or an aggregate medium) can be labeled organic. The discussion centers around the premise that only produce grown in the soil can be labeled organic.

While the heart of the debate centers around the organic issue, I believe words like “sustainable,” “natural,” and even “local,” are bigger buzzwords with a greater impact on the organic movement than the word “ponics.” A weak National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) is a bigger concern; standards that are not enforced are worse than nonexistent. And fraud is a very real, ever-looming presence that attacks the foundation of this industry. When your integrity is compromised so is your support.

Organics is on its way to becoming a 50-plus billion dollar industry and consistently remains the next big deal on our country’s food horizon. The right food in the right amount can change your health. Growing food the right way can change the atmosphere. And the ability to grow in the right place can change a community. The United Nations estimates that by the year 2050, the world’s population will grow from today’s 7.5 billion to nearly 10 billion people. The impact of how the world decides to feed everybody will be a huge challenge faced by coming generations.

Nearly 13 percent of U.S. households, representing 15.8 million families, are food insecure...

-Household Food Security in the United States, according to the USDA

Forecasts show that global food demand will increase 70 percent by the year 2050. When we look to determine how we are feeding people, are we thinking with tomorrow in mind? Or are we solely focused on today?

According to the USDA, “...nearly 13 percent of U.S. households, representing 15.8 million families, are food insecure, meaning it’s difficult for them to access adequate food because of lack of money and other resources. A lack of healthy and nutritious food, in turn, leads to preventable health issues like diabetes, anemia, and a weakened immune system, which then leads to the need for good health care, something these families also cannot afford. Chronic hunger also decreases mental focus, which translates to poor learning experiences for hungry children in the classroom; without essential nutrients, young brains cannot properly develop, harming learning abilities over the long term.” What this highlights must be carefully considered. The need is real.

Hydroponic IllustrationOver the last 20 years, Dutch farmers have been working on pursuing a more sustainable agriculture model by growing indoors. One of the examples cited in PBS NewsHour transcripts for November 2017 is a 20-acre plot of land that is filled with greenhouses. The annual harvest of 2.5 million pounds of tomatoes is more than double the average yield of an outdoor farm. In The Netherlands, greenhouses now produce about 35 percent of the country’s vegetables despite occupying less than one percent of the nation’s farmlands. Today, the United States is the world’s number one food exporter; The Netherlands is now number two, with volume accounting for nearly $90 billion in export sales. This is amazing given the fact that the country is less than one percent of the size of the U.S.

Resources becoming more scarce as the population grows—like water and land—can easily price the small farmer out of business, drive down overall quality as the pressure for cheaper goods rise, and destroy the inroads made into resolving food deserts. When the organic movement was in its infancy, the overarching goals were to produce better food, make it accessible to everyone, and do a better job of taking care of the environment. And so I ask for help in understanding how the environmental parameters of growing ponically strays away from those basic tenets of growing food organically. I agree that farming organically outside reduces carbon amongst many other things, no question and never a doubt in my mind. And on the other hand, growing ponically uses less water and needs less space. I am asking that you help me see what I am missing and how the dream of better food while taking care of the environment is being compromised. Aren’t all of these characteristics valuable and don’t they lend credence to the benefit of organic? Does organic need to mean one over the other?

Consumers in the U.S. expect their retailers to do the heavy lifting for them, making sure the food they sell is safe and in the organic sector—that it is what it says it is—raised in a manner consistent with the designation of organic.

Historically, the organic consumer was a bit more diligent in understanding their food supply; it was a matter of necessity and scarcity. With organic becoming mainstream, the focus has shifted away from the understanding of how it was grown and by whom, and has been superseded by price, quality, flavor, and appearance.

Aeroponic IllustrationConsumers take a risk and gamble every time they walk up to a produce shelf. Will my choice be and remain fresh until I consume it? Will it be good and will it ripen? Produce is the only place in the grocery store where the interaction between the consumer and the food is actually allowed to happen. You can touch and smell your produce—not your rib eye steak and not your frozen pizza. And it’s that emotional connection that makes this debate a bit more interesting to me.

How many times have you brought home produce and several days later it is still as hard as a baseball or once cut open literally tastes like water? Whether it’s grown in soil or in a greenhouse the food experience for the consumer is pretty much all the same. The relevance of its origin is a moot point if the product quality and flavor profile aren’t there. To quote a friend of mine, “All I want is a tomato that isn’t mush, tastes great, and won’t make me glow green.” This is a no-brainer; this is what the consumer wants every time they step up to the produce counter: who wouldn’t? But can we deliver, both conventionally and organically? And will we be able to do so in the future?

So what’s the story here? While there is a great divide between what folks believe about what is organic, fact is that the world is changing, and we have an opportunity to influence the changes rather than react to them. The purpose of this article is not to condemn or condone, but to present a perspective that perhaps isn’t getting the attention it deserves. Let’s explore the potential motivation to restrict the labeling of ponic as organic. Could it be that some people don’t want to give up their share of the growing organic market, or somehow hydroponics aren’t truly capable of being organic, or that there is an underlying harm to the label organic itself? Perhaps the debate needs to focus on the definition of organic, revisited and filtered through our original concerns of 30 years ago, along with the state of food today aligned with the changes in technology.

As the world’s population expands, will we be able to keep pace with its demands? While you and I may not agree as to what the future should look like, I make the point that change and the continued injection of technology are forces we will not be able to stop. So let’s look at the application of technology in a simple form. Technology, like artificial intelligence, will continue to replace many of the jobs humans have today. Labor costs are some of the largest budget items businesses are looking to control while retailers are pushing for cost savings to remain competitive. Technology will be a part of the equation. In the near future, some of the commodities currently harvested by hand will primarily be picked by mechanization. I believe wholeheartedly that we can and should work to ameliorate potential negative effects that these inevitabilities bring.

When the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990 was written, the world was much different, and so was our thinking. In 1990, we thought there were nine planets (sorry Pluto), and then the World Wide Web was launched. Things evolve, and what the world will be in 30 years hasn’t been invented yet. Larry Ellison, Founder of Oracle, has started a new company powered by Tesla using ponic growing to help drive nutrient density into food. They aren’t as worried about boxes per acre but about how much nutrition there is per acre. That’s a marketing angle that will be hard to beat.

...I am saying it is time to write standards that, as best as possible, protect everyone’s interests.

- Todd Linsky, TLC

We have the opportunity to see this debate as an obstacle to overcome by walking through it, rather than allowing it to become a wedge that stalemates us. I say we should support exploring our options to find food in a food desert, as well as reducing our fossil fuel dependency and water insufficiency. We have to be more effective in the ways we choose to feed people, embracing technological methods that work in harmony with the planet since population numbers don’t look as if they will be decreasing anytime soon. We cannot hide our heads in the sand and take a stand that will be eroded by the sheer needs of the planet. We can’t refute the fact that the horse was aced out by the car and the fax machine by email. What will it be tomorrow?

“The planet must produce more food in the next four decades than all the farmers in history have harvested over the past 8,000 years,” according to Ernst van den Ende, of Wageningen University and Research’s Plant Sciences Group. Technology is limitless in its application and the dreams that bring it to life. By its very nature of being cutting-edge, we are often overwhelmed by the imagination and need that drives it—and fail to harness the greed that can fuel it.

I am not advocating ponic over dirt. First of all, the demand is currently unable to be met ponically, and secondly not all things can currently be grown feasibly by ponic methods. Rather, I am saying it is time to write standards that, as best as possible, protect everyone’s interests. I’d rather face this head on than watch marketing campaigns that create additional seals and standards that confuse and confound. This movement isn’t going away, and it’s time for vision and leadership to be willing to listen, look for solutions, and provide options for people and this planet.

Soil Illustration

Contributing Author

Todd Linsky has spent the last thirty years immersing himself in the organic industry at every level. Todd’s experiences range from working as a produce manager for a small nature foods company and working nights on the Los Angeles Produce Market, to time spent in Moss Landing working for the first organic grower/shipper operation, and a rise to a vice presidency at one of the largest organic grower/shipper operations in the country. On his road to success, Todd has grown a sales company from hundreds of acres up to tens of thousands of acres; built over the years with countless handshakes. In 2015, Todd formed Todd Linsky Consulting, known as TLC (www.tlc.organic). With the founding of TLC, he then launched Produce Therapy® a dynamic tool that helps companies discover what has a significant impact on their company culture and directs the mood of their business. TLC’s proprietary methods and guidance, challenges the status quo and works to make each day extraordinary.