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 True or False: The Best Quality Produce is Organic
October 4, 2023
Joe Swartz


For years, “organic” has been considered synonymous with “the best quality produce,” and many efforts have been made to qualify controlled environment agriculture operations for that auspicious label.

Unfortunately, due the common use of inorganic (though no less natural) nutrients in CEA, that certification has mostly just been a white whale. The good news is that discerning consumers are beginning to weigh other factors more strongly, like locally-grown, and pesticide free; factors that CEA is already poised to cater to.

Just last week I spoke at the Virginia Tech CEA Summit and a visiting professor asked about how CEA farmers should approach the subject of organic. It’s a timely topic, and I want to take the opportunity to explain what “organic” is, why hydroponic produce has a hard time qualifying, and what farmers should do with this information.

The “organic” brand is strong, and CEA growers have spent years trying to qualify their produce for that designation in order to meet consumer preference.

But what is “organic”, really? One of the biggest misconceptions among consumers is that organic means pesticide-free. It does not.

My uncle was a 4H rancher, and I’ll always remember one time he was dealing with an infestation of flies that were irritating his cows. To deal with the issue, he tried something that was considered a best practice at the time. He rubbed the fur of his cows up and down with nicotine sulfate – an “organic” compound that was supposed to help. It ended up killing his cows. Organic, at a most basic level, simply means something that is not “inorganic”. It does not mean safe or pure.

Different states have slightly different criteria, but in general, to obtain an organic designation for your operation, two things are required. Your farm needs to use totally organic materials in your pest control and in nutrient management. Let’s take a look at how CEA can or cannot conform to these standards.

Organic Pest Control and CEA

From a pest control standpoint, most CEA operations actually have no problems qualifying. While organic pest control permits the use of organic pesticides, most CEA operations are entirely pesticide free. Greenhouses and other CEA sites are optimized for pest control, utilizing insect screening, ventilation, and the structures themselves to keep pests at bay. Even when these preventive measures are unsuccessful, pests can still be dealt with through biological methods, including pest predators like ladybugs, or even certain parasites that are harmful to pests but completely harmless to plants and humans.

In comparison, the pesticide-free approach is far superior to the use of pesticides. For instance, there are compounds such as Pyrethrin and Methyl Bromide that can be certified as organic pesticides, but are toxic to honeybees and harmful to humans.

At the end of the day, CEA can employ pest control methods that are far superior in terms of food cleanliness and safety. On the pest control front, most (though not all) CEA operations already qualify as organic.

Organic Nutrient Management and CEA

Nutrient management is where hydroponics and most CEA operations fail to qualify. Organic certification requires plants to be fed entirely with organically-sourced material, such as manures, blood meal, or bone meal. In traditional farms, these elements are incorporated into the soil, where they are necessarily broken down into their inorganic, ionic forms before they are utilized by the plant. 

It’s ironic, because these ionic compounds are exactly the same things that we feed our plants. Plants can’t absorb nitrogen from manure. It needs to decompose into inorganic nitrate before plants access it. CEA simply skips a step. Because we feed inorganic ions directly to the roots of plants, we do not use organic materials, and thus are unable to qualify for the “organic” designation.

Some companies have worked to develop solutions for organic nutrient compounds that can be utilized in CEA. We’ve tested dozens, but have yet to find one that offers comparable quality in crop production. For CEA growers interested in growing the healthiest and most appealing produce possible, nutrient management is the primary barrier against pursuing organic certification.

So what should we do with this information?

There’s not exactly much we can do if we have our hearts set on pursuing organic designation. But the good news is, we probably don’t need to worry about it. We already know that CEA grows produce of incredible quality, that we do so without the use of pesticides, and that we can grow and distribute this produce really close to our consumers. And consumer preference is changing too, as evidenced by many premium “healthy” grocery stores making space on their shelves for hydroponic produce.

There is still room for improvement. Our little corner of agriculture has been on the front lines of promoting biological pest control, but there’s lots of space for more education and research. Chemical companies have spent years and billions of dollars developing and refining chemical pesticides. I’m excited to see what could happen with more resources being put into biological pest control.

Trends change, and we have strong strengths. We should spend our efforts marketing the pesticide-free, clean nature of our produce. We should also continue to emphasize that our produce is the highest quality food that consumers can eat, grown close to their house. By emphasizing what we already do well, we can not only improve our bottom line, but we can continue improving the purity and quality of our products.

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