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What Is your opinion about hydroponically grown vegetables?

In the United States, hydroponically grown vegetables currently exist in a state of partial limbo with respect to organic food regulations, and from a business standpoint, state-of-the-art commercial production techniques continue to present a business challenge. For a variety of reasons, many of them technical and not related to low-quality production techniques on the part of hydroponic growers, most hydroponic vegetables in the U.S. are not certified organic, despite a commitment on the part of many hydroponic growers to the production of safe, nutrient-rich fresh vegetables that have been grown in a fully sustainable way. We encourage you to consider hydroponic vegetables in your diet if they come from one of the few growers who provide certified organic products, or if they come from a trustworthy grower who has expertise in hydroponics. We recommend that you speak in person with a produce manager at a local natural foods grocery to help you identify high-quality hydroponic produce that does not bear the USDA organics logo. For more information about hydroponics, we have provided the summary below.

Definition of Hydroponics

"Hydroponic" is a very general term used to describe the growing of plants without soil. "Hydroponic growing" simply means soilless growing. Since the prefix "hydro" means "water," many people think that hydroponic growing refers to growing that takes place in nothing but water. For the vast majority of hydroponically grown foods, however, water-only growing is not the case. Instead, hydroponically grown plants are raised in a variety of different media that substitute for soil. These media include sand, gravel, wood shavings, and vermiculite. Once the roots of the plants have been anchored in the soil substitute, they can be submerged in water that contains a carefully-blended set of nutrients matched to the needs of the plants. Plants grown hydroponically are typically raised in greenhouses, and the containers and equipment used to house and cultivate the plants have been made especially for that purpose. Although hydroponic growing is relatively limited in the U.S., there are tens of thousands of acres of hydroponic production facilities in Israel, Holland, Australia, New Zealand, and England.

What Foods Are Most Commonly Produced Using Hydroponics?

In the United States, lettuce and tomatoes are the most common hydroponically grown vegetables. Other hydroponic vegetables include broccoli, zucchini, summer squash, cauliflower, green beans, carrots, mushrooms, and sprouts. An increasing number of culinary herbs are also becoming available. Outside of the food world, flowers are the most common plants to be grown hydroponically.

What Is the Relationship Between Hydroponic and Organic?

The relationship between hydroponically grown vegetables and organically grown vegetables is a confusing one that is still surrounded by controversy. In general, most hydroponically grown vegetables have not been certified organic, but the reasons here are complicated and not necessarily related to any low-quality production techniques on the part of hydroponic growers. For example, one reason for the lack of organic certification can involve the nature of approved fertilizers used in organics. The national organics regulations assume that plants will be grown in soil, and for this reason, many approved fertilizers are ones that have been developed for soil-growing. Since soil bacteria are expected to play a major role in making fertilizer nutrients available to plants, soil-appropriate fertilizers are often not ideal for hydroponic growing due to the absence of soil bacteria for processing fertilizer nutrients. Hydroponic growers will often select other fertilizers to produce the highest quality and most nutrient-rich vegetables, even though that decision may mean lack of organic certification. Many hydroponic producers are dedicated to the production of safe, nutrient-rich fresh vegetables that have been grown in a sustainable way and fully support the idea of organically grown foods. At present, however, there are a very small number of certified organic hydroponic growers in the U.S., and for this reason, most hydroponically grown vegetables are not certified organic.

Hydroponically grown vegetables can make a good food choice, even if they are not certified organic, but you'll need to do some homework here in order to identify top quality choices that are have not been certified organic. The produce manager at a local natural foods grocery and/or a direct call to the company involved can help you make a decision about the purchase of hydroponic produce that does not bear the USDA organics logo. Ask about quality control procedures, monitoring for potential contaminants, and the extent of nutritional analysis, including nutrients that may not appear on the Nutrition Facts panel.

What's On the Horizon for Hydroponics?

With respect to the controversy surrounding hydroponics and organics, we're expecting to see some clarification of the issues here based on final report by the Aquaculture Working Group at the National Organics Program. This report has addressed several aspects of hydroponic cultivation that may help resolve questions regarding the fertilization of hydroponically grown plants, including all hydroponically grown vegetables.

WHFoods Recommendations

Don't rule out hydroponically grown vegetables from your diet, but at the same time, don't automatically assume that they are as nutrient-rich or contamination-free as certified organic vegetables. If you can find certified organic, hydroponically grown vegetables, make those your first choice. If unavailable, still consider the purchase of non-organic hydroponically grown vegetables, but do your homework by talking to the produce manager at a local natural foods grocery and by making a direct call to the company involved, asking questions about quality control procedures, monitoring of products for potential contaminants, and frequency of nutritional analysis, including nutrients that may not appear on the Nutrition Facts panel.

For more information on this topic please see: Everything I Need to Know About Organic Foods

References

  • Brentlinger DJ. New trends in hydroponic crop production in the U.S. ISHS Acta Horticulturae 2005; 742: International Conference and Exhibition on . 2005.
  • Diego A Moreno, Carmen López-Berenguer, M Carmen Martínez-Ballesta, et al. Basis for the new challenges of growing broccoli for health in hydroponics. Journal of the Science of Food and Agriculture. London. 2008;88(8):1472. 2008.

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