Can Bioponic Foods also be Organic?

February 26, 2018 by Mariana Galata, Innovate Phytoceuticals

A veteran in the organic industry, Kelly Monaghan, from Ash Street Organics, presented a very informative seminar on organics and bioponics at the CHFA West conference on Friday February 23. She discussed the varying opinions in the industry regarding the ongoing debate as to whether these designations are mutually exclusive. Currently, organic food is generally considered to be grown in soil-based medium. The question raised here is, do bioponics have a place in the organic food industry?

Bioponics refers to the hydro-, aero-, and aquaponic methods of plant production and this terminology covers a wide range of soil-free plant growth practices. Within hydroponics, there are several subtypes, wick system, drip system and ebb and flow, to name a few. All these systems have a different manner of providing nutrient enriched water to the plant roots, yet they all share their soil-free characteristic. Aeroponics is a method where the plant root system is suspended in the air and misted with a nutrient solution. Aquaponics is perhaps the most delicate of these bioponics systems, due to the fact it is comprised of a sensitive balance between two living systems, aquatic and plant organisms. The water recently used by aquatic organisms is passed through a simple filter and used to provide nutrition to the plant roots. This water is cleaned as it passes through the root system before it returns to the aquatic organisms.

There are several advantages to bioponic growing techniques. They tend to use water very efficiently, resulting in significant water savings. Additionally, little to no pesticides are applied to bioponic-produced plants and their yield and turn over rates are high. By growing plants in a closed controlled environment, bioponic farmers do not need to compete with inclement weather surprises or pest and air borne pathogens and diseases to produce quality food. Also, the foods consumers have grown to appreciate seasonally can be enjoyed year-round with bioponics, not to mention the fluctuating food costs due to seasonal food yields is eliminated. The need to ship food grown in other parts of the world decreases when that food can be produced indoors in your own community, which is another plus.

Organic designation is defined as foods that are grown and produced with feed or fertilizer that is of plant origin. Organics contains fewer pesticides and no antibiotics, hormones, or preservatives are added. These foods are associated with being grown in natural and biologically active soil environments with the sun as source of light. The commonly highlighted disadvantage to organic food production is the limited yield, especially when compared to conventional farming and agriculture practices. This generally results in higher prices at the grocery store.

Currently in the US, plants grown in aero- and aquaponic systems can be certified as organic. However, in Canada, all bioponic-derived plants are prohibited from being certified organic. Why is it these two classifications cannot be simultaneously true? Are these not both systems that push towards the same goal, improved health and sustainability of how our food is grown? There is consumer pressure and concern regarding the "organic" claim on foods that are not gaining the nutritional benefits of soil-grown plants. If there is no distinction between food that was or wasn't produced bioponically, there is a worry that organics enthusiasts and consumers will un-knowingly consume foods grown in soluble nutrient solutions. These systems are allegedly not equivalent in nutrition and quality to those exposed to the complex soil benefits of "true" organic foods.

This consumer driven debate will likely continue in the coming years as demand for organic food increases. Some things to consider as the organic industry grows include: how will farmers supply this increasing demand? May the coexistence of bioponic and organic practices be an answer? Do the benefits of bioponic growing practices outweigh the suggested disadvantages of growing food without soil? Thank you to Kelly for bringing this engaging topic to CHFA.