Is Aquaponics Better Than Certified Organic?

By: Tawnya Sawyer

organic aquaponicsThe term organic aquaponics is not uncommon to hear these days, but what does ‘organic’ actually mean? Is it more of an adjective or a government checklist? Can the term ‘organic aquaponics’ actually be used with confidence?

Chris Smith of Coastview Aquaponics in Hawaii is the kind of local, neighborhood farmer born of the worldwide Food Movement. His aquaponic farm has about 1,000 square feet of growing space. He sells produce to his neighbors three times a week by inviting them to harvest straight out of his systems. He sells his produce with the roots attached whenever possible because he can then guarantee it will be fresh for up to three weeks, if kept in the refrigerator.

This week in the Aquaponic Gardening Community, Chris started a forum topic titled Is Aquaponics Better Than Certified Organic? . In it, Chris related the experience he had attempting to become organic certified. In a nutshell, the process is expensive and it is complex (The organic application is similar to doing your own taxes). Partway through the application process, Chris gave up. Instead, he decided to focus on all the sustainable benefits of his farming operation that actually go far beyond the organic certification standards that he was trying to convince the federal inspectors he was following.

This made me start thinking does a ‘Certified Organic’ label actually mean anything valuable anymore? It certainly indicates that the farm that obtained it has the financial means to pay for the application process and ongoing fees. It indicates that they have the willingness to go through the regulatory hoops of a federal certifying process. It means that they only use the ‘allowed’ pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers. But is that good enough for the food I buy for my family?

I wonder if the emerging paradigm based on getting to know local farmers like Chris, brings us much closer to the original ideals of the Organic Movement of wholesome, chemical-free, sustainably produced food. It seems to me that looking a local farmer in the eye and asking “how did you grow this turnip?” is a far more powerful concept than a purchased certificate from a government agency. After all, the farmer has a community reputation to uphold.

And where does aquaponics fit into all of this?

Chris ended the introduction of his forum topic with ‘Through education of the public we hope to get aquaponics held to a higher standard than ‘certified organic.” Sound controversial? Well, when you think about it, aquaponics is, by its very nature, at a higher standard of growing wholesome, chemical-free, sustainably produced food than the minimums set by the federal government:

  • Most of the ‘allowed’ pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers on the USDA certified organic list could never be used in an aquaponic system as they would harm the fish and the bacteria that provide the living fuel and engine to grow the plants.
  • There are no weeds, so there is no need for herbicides.
  • Aquaponics uses less than 1/10 of the water of traditional, dirt-based farming so it is incredibly water efficient.
  • There is no chance of getting E. coli or salmonella from aquaponically grown produce (assuming proper hygiene protocols are followed and there is no cross contamination). These diseases that have tarnished the reputation of the organics industry do not exist in aquaponics because they do not exist in cold-blooded animals such as fish.

So will aquaponically grown produce have less chemical residue, be produced in a more sustainable, water-wise manner, and be less susceptible to food pathogens than much of the produce grown using USDA Organic Standards? I think the answer is a resounding ‘Yes!’. The question now is, how do we label aquaponic produce so the rest of the world understands this. Any ideas?