By Eliot Coleman
The interest in using soil-less hydroponic systems to grow food is an example of what Teddy Goldsmith decried in his book The Way as “the methodical substitution of the technosphere or surrogate world for the ecosphere or real world.”
The latter is the source of natural outcomes; the former is the source of artificial outcomes. Goldsmith goes on to say, “To question the efficacy of this substitution, or to suggest that it might not be entirely beneficial, is to blaspheme against the holy writ of what is in effect the religion of the modern world. The inestimable benefits provided by the normal functioning of the ecosphere – such as a favorable and stable climate, fertile soil and fresh water, without which life on this planet would not be possible – are totally ignored and assigned no value of any kind. It follows that to be deprived of these non-benefits cannot constitute a ‘cost’ and the natural systems that provide them can therefore be destroyed with economic impunity.”
Common sense and centuries of knowledge confirm that a biologically active fertile soil is the most efficient producer of highly nutritious and pest resistant crops. Therefore, it would seem that only a distorted religious belief in the sanctity of man-made technology could possibly explain the defense of hydroponic techniques as making any sense at all as a substitute for true soil culture. Add in the use of LED lighting as a replacement for natural sunlight and the resulting plants are even more spurious.
An obvious parallel with another technosphere/ecosphere dichotomy will underline the difference. Plants can be grown in either a hydroponic system or a soil-based system. Babies can be raised on either artificial formula or breast milk. But it goes against all medical research to claim that artificial formula feeding has ever duplicated all the nutritional benefits of breastfeeding. Artificial formula is acknowledged as a substitute used in situations where there is no other option for feeding the child. Hydroponic production is logically a substitute to be used in situations (outer space) where real soil is not available.
Humans may be smart, but they are not often wise. None of the water-based, soluble-nutrient delivery systems (hydroponic, aquaponic, or whatever) can come close to duplicating all the benefits (nutritional, environmental, sustainable, etc.) of soil-based organic food production.