Like in the US, the debate on whether hydroponic grown vegetables can be classified as organic is ongoing in Europe. That’s partly because of the surcharges organically certified produce yields, but there’s more. Growing hydroponically is truly sustainable, industry suppliers and growers say. “There are wonderful sustainable initiatives, they are just not organic,” is the answer of the organic industry.

Example from the US
Earlier this month a US court decided that the USDA organic label can be applied for produce grown using containers or other hydroponic systems. In Europe, plants still have to be grown in the soil to be classified as organic. It was decided in the summer of 2017 and remains intact in the Organic Action Plan 2021-2027 of the European Commission, presented last week, that soil born remains a necessity for the organic industry.

Surcharges and sustainability
In Europe too, there’s interest in growing certified organic products hydroponically, industry suppliers say. That’s partly because of the surcharges organically certified produce yields, but there’s more. “With today’s techniques, it is outdated to call only soil-grown crops organic. Europe should take an example from the US,” says Peter van den Dool with Van der Knaap – a substrate supplier. His opinion is supported broadly, but organic growers think differently. “There are wonderful sustainable initiatives, they are just not organic,” says organic grower Wim van Marrewijk.

“I fully understand why the European organic sector is anti. It’s probably partly economic and partly a matter of principle,” says Jelte van Kammen, CEO at Dutch grower cooperative Harvest House. “Nevertheless, it’s a pity that we, as Europe, aren’t seizing such an enormous, sustainable opportunity. Certainly, when Europe indicates in its green deal that it wants to scale up to organic.”

‘Unfortunately, we haven’t yet succeeded in getting this farming method positioned separately in the Retail Association. The reason is that the retail sector’s purchasing focuses on the p of price. At Harvest House, we’ve repeatedly appealed to retailers to take up the challenge with us. To this day, we haven’t received a response. So we now fly it to the USA, where we sell it as organic. And we do get the surcharge needed for this cultivation technique. This is purely economic because it is, of course, not sustainable.”

Organic action plan
Also according to Dutch industry body Glastuinbouw Nederland, a greater focus on organic cultivation ignores the fact that conventional, sustainable greenhouse horticulture causes less emissions than various types of organic cultivation. The trade association stated this in response to the Organic Action Plan. “Organic cultivation often involves less production per square meter, which means that more cultivation area is needed to maintain the production level,” explains director Ruud Paauwe. “As a result, organic cultivation can actually lead to more environmental impact and loss of nature and biodiversity. Moreover, the available cultivation area worldwide is not sufficient to feed all mouths in the coming decades. ”

According to Paauwe, Glastuinbouw Nederland strives for a sustainable production method, with a low environmental impact per harvested product. “Greenhouse horticulture has the ambition to grow healthy vegetables, flowers and plants by 2030 in an ecosystem based on a water-efficient, circular greenhouse. This has virtually no residue on the product and emission of crop protection agents and nutrients to the environment,” says Paauwe. “The modern greenhouses enable intensive cultivation methods, with a high yield per square meter, use of high-tech to limit the environmental burden and the continuous development of green solutions.”

Organic site
A set case then? Well, no, not according to the organic greenhouse growers. “What happens in the US is up to the government there. The European government has previously made a clear statement about substrate cultivation and organic. We are really pushing from the organic sector to connect with mainstream agriculture,” says Michaël Wilde with organic industry body Bionext.

“The organic sector is very enthusiastic about the sustainable developments that are going on in the regular sector, they are working very hard there to become more sustainable. However, there remain clear differences between this more sustainable regular farming and the certified organic farming, organic is really a system farming. Organic farming is anchored in the soil. We will never let go of that aspect.”

He emphasizes the importance of soil for biodiversity. “Organic has a clear connection to soil not only on the basis of legislation. It also plays an essential role in the basic principles of care, ecology, health and fairness.”

Michael also wonders how consumers view this discussion. “It’s also important to ask yourself how the consumer stands on this. I don’t think consumers would accept calling substrate cultivation organic.”

“Organic is called organic for a reason”
The organic glass growers of the Nautilus Organic cooperative let it be known that organic is called organic for a reason. “It’s about coherence, about life, about good stewardship, soil management, strong plants, biodiversity, ingredients and health. ‘Organic’ is a method of cultivation in which the plant forms a symbiotic system in conjunction with the earth from which the plant is nourished and given natural resilience. This is part of the basic principles of organic cultivation and it is also important to be able to continue to offer consumers this certainty. And fortunately, this will also remain the standard when the new EU regulation takes effect on 01-01-2022.”

Not comparable
Wim van Marrewijk, cultivation manager of Biokwekerij Frank de Koning, responds, “Organic vegetables and vegetables grown on substrate are simply not comparable. Growing them in the ground results in more nutritious products with more vitamins. The link between food and human well-being is, as far as we are concerned, pushed aside far too easily in this discussion. It has been shown that there is a clear link between organically grown vegetables and healthy human gut flora. This has to do with the living soil and the biotope in which organic greenhouse vegetables grow.”

‘Sustainability should not lead to tunnel vision’
“What is certain is that sustainable conventional horticulture has taken many steps in recent years to make their crops more sustainable and to further reduce the use of chemicals, fertilizers, plant protection products, substrate and so on. There are undoubtedly beautiful, sustainable initiatives and that is great news for the environment. They are just not organic.”

“As organic greenhouse vegetables are in the ground, a soil biotope develops that allows plants to feed naturally, contain more contents and develop more vigorously. This takes place in a soil up to the groundwater environment and that is easily 500-700 liters of soil per plant, while on cultivation gutters we still talk about a substrate quantity of about 5-7 liters. Thanks to all the fungi and bacteria present, a soil has a self-correcting ability, which can never develop in a cultivation gutter due to the lack of matter and time and therefore can’t increase resilience.”

Furthermore, according to the organic growers, there is the question: What is sustainable? Wim: “When we look at the direct input of energy per kilogram of product, substrate cultivation perhaps wins. But only the costs of the supply of raw materials, the energy costs of extraction and melting of aluminum casts and production of plastic are being looked over, as is the environmental impact all of this. Sustainability should not become tunnel vision; we should look at the whole picture. What really contributes to our well-being and that of our planet? Again: there are wonderful sustainable initiatives, they are just not organic.”

Enforcing added value
In response to the discussion that arose online in response to the ruling, it was also about price. The costs of land cultivation and other forms of cultivation that could possibly become organic differ greatly.

If the rules were to be changed in Europe to ensure a significant growth in the organic sector, there would be doubts about maintaining a good price for organic producers and about whether consumers would follow the demand.

The sector itself should command a higher price with a sustainable, organic product, some believe. “If this is successful, even with an increase in supply, the ‘resistance’ to additional organic certification of fruit and vegetables would largely subside. But that, enforcing the added value/supplementary price, is where the problem sometimes lies.”