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Aquaponics is a sustainable way of growing fruits and vegetables that has gained popularity in recent years. The system promotes a symbiotic relationship between plants and marine animals, allowing both small backyard setups and commercial growers the ability to cultivate nutritious crops and raise edible fish. However, some have begun to speculate on how this method of gardening should be classified, leading many to ask the question, “is aquaponics organic?” and can it be given organic certification?
The answer is, yes, aquaponics systems can be certified as organic by the US Department of Agriculture. However, there is still an ongoing debate by many groups on whether or not aquaponics crops do fall in this category because it’s a soilless system.
This article will serve to clear the definition of organic, whether or not aquaponics can be considered organic, and what an organic certification can do to your commercial aquaponics system.
What is Organic?
It’s important to note that often, people tend to use the term “organic” in a way that is a more all-encompassing definition than the specific requirements mandated by the USDA when approving a certification application. By definition, organic is an agricultural (or food farming) practice that doesn’t involve the use of synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, and other additives that can affect the quality and yield of produce. If any of these conditions are not met, technically, the product is not considered organic.
It’s quite easy to see how this can become confusing to many, because the term organic is often more associated with a perception of health benefits, more so than the government classification. Based on the definition alone, it is clear that aquaponics systems can be labeled organic, as long as they meet the governmental requirements. In fact, there are examples of aquaponics systems in the U.S. that have been granted organic certification by the USDA.
How Are Aquaponics Organic?
According to the USDA, the line between organic and non-organic, based on definition, is pretty clear. In theory, aquaponics meets those standards as a growing method. However, there are always exceptions in which an aquaponics practitioner could employ some unapproved growing practices, which could inhibit this classification. In general, here are the reasons why aquaponics are considered organic:
- Doesn’t use synthetic fertilizers
- Employs chemical-free pest control
- Has less environmental impact
- Doesn’t use growth hormones and antibiotics
No Synthetic Fertilizers
One of the benefits of having an aquaponics system is that there is no need for synthetic fertilizers. The system uses fish, which will be the source of nutrients for the plants. Left alone, the waste produced by fish into the water tanks leads to an unhealthy aquatic environment. However, aquaponics leverages this waste by using the plants to filter out toxins. As nutrients from water get absorbed by plants, the water then becomes purified, clean, and safe enough to return to the fish tank.
Chemical-Free Pest control
Pests are not totally absent from an aquaponics system. From time to time, you might find yourself dealing with bugs that feast on your crops. However, many aquaponics growers tend to focus more on natural pest-control methods, such as hand removal, bug netting, and introduction of beneficial insects. That’s because even the organic-certified pesticides can pose harm to the fish.
Less Environmental Impact
Since there’s no watering involved, aquaponics systems use 90% less water compared to traditional farming methods. Aquaponics is a closed-loop system, so water that goes to the grow beds will flow back to the fish tank. And because it uses less water, growing aquaponics crops in drought areas is significantly less of a concern, as opposed to traditional farming.
In addition, since there are no chemical pesticides and fertilizers used, there is no risk of polluting streams, rivers, and lakes with these substances. Moreover, since aquaponics doesn’t need hectares of land to be able to grow crops, more land can be preserved for wildlife.
No Growth Hormones & Antibiotics
Most aquaponic gardeners aim to practice growing organic crops, and this includes making sure the fish are not given growth hormones. Instead, the fish are fed a natural diet composed mostly of fishmeal and fish oil, which can also ensure high levels of Omega-3, especially in fatty species, like salmon.
When it comes to treating fish diseases, antibiotic use is prohibited. Since much of the system relies on the conversion of ammonia and nitrites to plant food, bacteria need to thrive. In that case, administering antibiotics is actually counterproductive and might disrupt your overall system. The most common method of treating diseased fish is to isolate them in a separate tank and apply a salt bath solution.
Aquaponics Organic Certification – Does It Matter?
Consumers will be willing to pay more for crops that bear the “certified organic” label. You can’t deny that this certain label makes products look more attractive. There is also an increasing demand for organic produce. In the future, people are likely to switch to organic because they are healthy, chemical-free crops that can be sold at a reasonable price.
If you’re doing commercial aquaponics, getting an organic certification can bring in more income. However, if you sell your produce and claim it to be organic, despite the lack of certification, that is considered violating the law and you can face a hefty fine.
Conclusion: So, Is Aquaponics Organic?
Yes, aquaponics systems can clearly be classified as organic despite being a soilless method of farming. The system can produce food in a sustainable way without the use of humanmade nutrients, the application of pesticides, and treatment with antibiotics. And even though there is no soil involved, the public would still see it as organic. According to this 2014 Consumer Report, the public views the term “organic” simply as chemical-free, healthy and nutritious, and environment-friendly – all of which describe the aquaponics system.