Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Organic Hydroponics

papaya grown in soil with organic nutrients under T5 lighting

I want to defend organic nutrients, but not the word organic. We're learning not to trust the word "organic" the way we demoted the word "natural" to a synonym of "anything". As in: 'anything you can sell is natural.' Some of our nutrient brands have gone a step further to describe their products as "vegan" to emphasize that they are using non-mined plant sources like seaweed. It's important to understand that hydroponic systems for agriculture conserve more water, energy and mineral resources than open industrial farming by a long shot.

Phosphorus is the reason we have a problem labeling any fertilizer organic. Phosphorus is a scarce finite resource on planet earth. It is an essential element for life, and is extracted from phosphate rock almost entirely for agriculture use around the world. There are organic and synthetic processes of phosphate extraction in mineral mining.

When is the earth-destructive process of mineral extraction qualified as organic? This has to do with chemicals used in the chelation process of making absorbable phosphate fertilizers from rock. Synthetic chelates like EDTA or DTPA used to strip phosphates from rock appear in trace amounts in non-organic produce grown with synthetic fertilizers. Organic chelates are humic or fulvic acids derived from the natural decomposition of organic material. The phosphates recovered by humic acids are identical to those found in nature.

Optimistic scientists say we have more than 100 years before the end of agriculture (and strike-matches technology). Recycling phosphorus by using manure or animal bones as a source for phosphorus fertilizer on local farms is the approach used by permaculturists. Phosphorus conservation for urbanites and suburbanites can be achieved with hydroponics.

Many nutrients labelled 'organic' are made for soil, and include nutrients that promote living microflora. This is technically not hydroponics. Hydroponics, by definition, uses inert soilless mediums that allow easy nutrient exchange with the roots of plants. Soil is increasingly popular in urban gardening because of the benefits of microflora. Plants grown in soil are more resilient to everything. Beneficial microbial life in the soil create these organic chelates (humic acids) that continue to make phosphates and other minerals in soil available to plants for absorption.

Whether the system is hydroponic or soil, in full sunlight or beneath powerful grow-lights, the principles of plant nutrition are the same. If you can identify and abundantly provide the minerals plants need during different stages of growth, the plants will grow large and produce a lot of food. This works in soil as well with the use of organic nutrients.

There are nutrients designed specifically for growth, blooming, fruiting, and as targeted adjustments to mineral deficiencies in plants. There are enzyme catalysts , micro-flora cultures, and amendments for every imaginable application. Insect frass, for example, is insect material that is both a fertilizer, and a trigger for plants to produce their own natural pest-deterring immune response.

Hydroponics is water-efficient. Many systems recycle nutrients until the fertilizer is spent. Even nutrient wastewater from non-organic, or mineral-derived nutrients used in hydroponics is cleaner than grey water from laundry machines and dishwashers. If you live in an area with municipal water treatment, dumping your waste nutrients down the drain makes extra food for the microbes used in water reclamation. The city might notice a bump in organic activity (a proper use for the word organic) at their treatment facility. Some ethically-minded growers make their own ponds to reclaim nutrient wastewater.

Fertilizers that wind up in lakes and rivers produce algae blooms that can suffocate fish and destroy ecosystems. Even organic nutrients will feed algae blooms. This is a manageable problem for industry-scale hydroponics but not for high-input farming. High-input farming has no efficient way to recover, recycle or reclaim the chemical fertilizers and pesticides required to sustain those operations. Fertilizer run-off is devastating to ecosystems as seen here in Florida's toxic algae

If organic is a standard based on input (no chemical fertilizers, synthetic pesticides, etc.), is a tomato grown organically in California still organic in Washington? We can describe produce as 'local and organic', but 'organic' farming is as unsustainable as the farming industry ever was. Sustainable agriculture is local and resource-efficient. This is why we promote hydroponics. 

Sources not linked above:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chelation
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Edta
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/DTPA
http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2013/05/fertilized-world/charles-text

--> don't knock wiki sources.