Mercury Food and Wine articles No.2

Here is my October 2010 article.

Organic or Hydroponic

The other day a retailer remarked “A salad pack is a salad pack. Customers don’t care if its organic or not as long as the packaging is good!” I certainly hope consumers are making more informed choices as there is certainly a lot more to salad packs than what just meets the eye.

Over 90% of salad packs that not labelled organic are hydroponically grown so it will be safe to make a direct comparison with the organic alternative.

Hydroponics can be defined as a method of growing plants in a nutrient solution without needing soil. It can best be summed up by the phrase “feed the plant not the soil”. Plants are fed directly through the roots by synthetic fertilisers in a water solution.

This is the exact opposite of the Organic method. “Feed the soil not the plant” is the catchphrase of the organic movement. Organic agriculture focuses on the health of the soil as it is recognises that true plant and animal health relies on a balanced interconnection of all members of the soil ecosystem. Plants are fed primarily through the soil ecosystem and not through nutrients added to the soil.

The hydroponic system is an industrial short cut to higher productivity and yield that mainly benefits the producer as it has a more predictable business model, uses less labour and produces higher yields.

The Organic system is health centred and focuses on quality as opposed to quantity. It produces safer, more nutritious and better tasting produce in manner that promotes the health of the soil and the environment, promotes biodiversity, and focuses on fair trade and labour practises.

The main differences between organic and hydroponic salad packs can be summed up as follows:

No pesticides or fungicides have been used on Organic lettuce. Some hydroponic growers claim they use minimal pesticides or fungicides but there is no independent certification process to verify this, such as exists for a certified Organic grower.

The inherent quality of organic lettuce is high. It has higher levels of nutrients than conventionally grown crops. The taste of organic lettuce is superior and it has a higher shelf life.

Lettuce for organic salad packs is washed in pure water with no added chemicals.

The growing process of organic lettuce is beneficial to the environment. It promotes biodiversity, builds soil health and maintains water quality. Organic growing has a low carbon footprint as it locks away more carbon than it produces in the soil.

Hydroponic growing has a high carbon footprint in that it relies on fertilisers that are manufactured using fossil fuels. The buildings and infrastructure of a hydroponic farm have a negative impact on biodiversity and landscape. Hydroponic growing may potentially use less water than organic but can pollute waterways and ground water with nutrient rich waste water.

Organic salad packs are not always more expensive than hydroponic ones. A brief perusal of the shelves at major greengrocer chains will confirm this.

At the end of the day it is the consumer, purchasing sustenance for themselves, their family and friends who must make the choice. The choice has to be for their health and benefit, not for the benefit of the producers and retailers. It is not the packaging that matters, but the produce within.

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About Rob Symons

My name is Rob Symons. I live in Pietermaritzburg, kwaZulu-Natal, South Africa. MuthiMuthi is my Zulu nickname which means tall tree. I am an Organic Farmer and an environmentalist. I live and work on Broadleaze Farm in the Mkondeni valley on the eastern outskirts of Pietermaritzburg.
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