Growing Vegetables: Hydroponic Or Organic?

Can fruits and vegetables grown hydroponically be organic? I understand there’s some controversy about this, but I don’t know the issues.

– March 6, 2018

Hydroponic farming is the cultivation of plants in water without soil. An advantage over soil cultivation is that there are fewer problems with pests and weeds, and soil-borne diseases. Commercial hydroponic growing is done in greenhouses.

There is, indeed controversy about whether or not hydroponically grown fruits and vegetables can be considered organic. Here’s the issue: some hydroponically grown produce has been certified as organic by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), but farmers contend that organic certification should be limited to produce grown in soil. They argue that organic farming benefits the health and regeneration of soil.

This issue came to a head in November 2017, when the National Organic Standards Board voted against a proposal to ban hydroponic methods in organic farming. As things now stand, as long as hydroponic farmers use only organic pesticides – if pesticides are needed – their produce can receive organic certification. Proponents of hydroponics contend that it is more energy and water efficient than soil-based farming. They claim, for instance, that tomatoes can be grown organically with only three to five gallons of water per pound of production, whereas growing them in soil requires up to 37 gallons of water for the same yield. Another plus for hydroponic farms is that they can be located anywhere, even in buildings in the middle of cities, thus reducing transportation costs to bring them to market. Reportedly, more and more hydroponic farms are starting up nationwide.

Not all organic hydroponic farms are small – some huge producers, including Driscoll’s and Wholesum Harvest, raise tomatoes, cucumbers, squash, peppers and berries in giant greenhouses and distribute them nationwide.

Organic farmers who grow their produce in soil argue that their vegetables have better flavor and superior nutritional content than those that are hydroponically grown. Whether or not organic produce in general is actually more nutritious than conventionally grown food has never been scientifically settled. But better nutrition isn’t the primary reason to choose organic produce – the point is to avoid the pesticides and herbicides used and their potentially adverse effects on health “and the planet”.

The claim that organically grown vegetables have a superior flavor is a subjective judgment, and there’s the fact that flavor can vary from crop to crop. While hydroponic growers often say they breed their tomatoes for flavor, I’ve found that while the fruit often looks attractive, the flavor usually is insipid and doesn’t compare to the best soil-grown organic or homegrown tomatoes. Nothing beats the burst of summer flavor that comes with tomatoes sun-ripened in your own garden or in the fields of a good, local organic farmer. This could change if hydroponic growers would focus on better varieties.

I can understand the objections of the organic community to calling produce grown without soil organic, but I also think hydroponic growing has a big future and can be done without chemical fertilizers and pesticides. Maybe we need to create and name a new category for it.

Andrew Weil, M.D.



Dan Nosowitz, “Can Hydroponic Farming Be Organic? The Battle Over The Future Of Organic Is Getting Heated.” Modern Farmer, May 4, 2017,

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