An introduction to organic ‘bioponics’ and containers

Bioponics and containerized production were a significant topic of discussion at the Fall 2016 NOSB meeting in St. Louis, MO. Hydroponics, aeroponics, aquaponics, bioponics, and containers are all buzzwords that are used to describe different production systems, but what do these various terms and definitions mean, and what do these systems look like?


NOSB is considering whether ‘bioponic’ production systems align with organic regulations and principles, and it uses the term ‘bioponics’ to describe a spectrum of operations that grow crops without the use of solid media like soil (in the case of in-the-ground production) or coco coir or peat moss (in the case of containerized production). Within this soil-less spectrum, crops can be grown with their roots immersed in or exposed to microbial active, nutrient rich, water solution (hydroponics and aeroponics), or they can be grown in combination with fish whose waste is transformed to plant available nutrients by microbes present in the system (aquaponics).  Historically, hydroponic, aeroponic, and, to some extent, aquaponic systems have relied on conventional, plant available, fertilizers to bypass the need for biology in these systems.  Innovative growers, however, have figured out how to maintain an adequate population of microbes in these systems to allow for the use of natural fertilizers allowed in organic production.  The term ‘bioponics’ refers to this entire spectrum of soil-less growing that maintains a sufficient level of biological activity to grow crops using only fertilizers allowed in organic farming.

Containerized production

Containerized production is somewhat easier of a production system to picture.  These systems grow crops in containers, and supply nutrients through the combination of solid fertilizers mixed into the growing media as well as liquid fertilizers delivered through irrigation systems. As with ‘bioponics,’ containerized production must ensure that adequate biology is present in order to convert the natural fertilizers into a form available to plants.  Growers are finding additional water-saving and land-conservation benefits from growing in containers, and this style of production is being used to produce vegetables, such as tomatoes, peppers, and cucumbers, as well as small berries, such as blueberries and raspberries. 


At its meeting, NOSB decided to continue work on a proposal regarding these systems, but affirmed that it stands by the 2010 NOSB recommendation to prohibit operations using entirely water-based substrates. To accomplish this, NOSB passed the following resolution:

NOSB respects the efforts of the former NOSB that led to its 2010 recommendation on terrestrial plants in greenhouses. The NOSB recognizes that the foundation of organic agriculture is based upon a systems approach to producing food in the natural environment, which respects the complex dynamic interaction between soil, water, air, sunlight and animals needed to produce a thriving agro ecosystem. At the heart of the organic philosophy is the belief that our responsibilities of good stewardship go beyond production of healthy food and include protection of natural resources, biodiversity and the ecosystem services upon which we all depend. We encourage future NOSB to consider this wider perspective as the board undertakes the challenges of assessing and defining innovations in agriculture that may be compatible in a system of organic production. In the case of the hydroponic/aquaponic issue, it is the majority of the current members of the NOSB to prohibit hydroponic systems that have an entirely water-based substrate. Although that was the original intent of the proposal before us today, the current proposal as structured does not achieve this objective. While the majority of NOSB does not believe that the liquid substrate systems should be sold under the USDA organic label, these growers deserve the chance to promote their very commendable qualities and objectives in their own right.

The issue will take center stage at NOSB’s April meeting in Denver, CO. OTA will continue its work of soliciting feedback from our members and developing positions on alternative production systems that provide flexibility to accommodate innovation while safeguarding consumer trust in what the organic label means.   //

Hydroponic production

Aeroponic production

Aquaponic production

Aquaponic fish production