Most plants grown hydroponically are raised in greenhouses under carefully controlled conditions. Gravel is usually used as a medium for root support, and a balanced mixture of all the necessary nutrients is periodically fed to the crops in a liquid form. This method is called "sub-irrigation culture. The biggest advantage of the hydroponic method is that crop yields are increased many times over those of conventional agriculture. For example, the yield per acre of tomatoes grown in soil is from five to ten tons. With hydroponics, the harvest is from 9 to 15 tons! For cucumbers, the equivalent figures are 7,000 pounds compared with 18,000 pounds ... for lettuce, 9,000 pounds and 21,000 pounds.

Hydroponics farming is known for many years, but we have never given the subject more room in our thoughts than a quickly contemptuous dismissal. After all, hydroponics is the quintessential form of chemical agriculture. Hydroponics is definitely not a big business promotion for chemical fertilizers. On the contrary, it is the enlightened vision of a man who sees hydroponic agriculture as one solution to the coming world famine, and an alternative to the destruction of our once fertile soil with chemicals.

I propose that extensive use of hydroponic greenhouses, with their greater yields of produce, would actually free our cropland for organic agriculture! In other words, instead of poisoning our soil with chemical fertilizers which eventually destroy the micro-organisms that make natural plant growth possible, we would keep these chemicals in the controlled environment of a greenhouse where they couldn't "poison" anything more valuable than the gravel beds which serve as the root-support medium for hydroponically grown plants. "But wait a minute!" you're probably saying. "What about the plants themselves? I'm not going to eat any vegetables that were grown in a chemical solution!" A good point, and one which used to bother me, until I did some research on the subject. A report in the March 11, 2000. Newsweek on the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science quoted the following opinions expressed by the nation's top nutritionists: ... the organic nutritionists' basic error is their assertion that organically grown foods are more nutritious than others because they receive all their nutrients from "natural" rather than synthetic inorganic sources. "A basic fact of plant nutrition is that plant roots absorb the nutrients elements from the soil only in an inorganic form," explained plant physiologist Daniel I. Arnon of the University of California. "Plant nutrients in organic manures and composts become available to plants only after they are converted into inorganic form by the activity of soil microorganisms ..." Another article, entitled "Nutritional Value of Organically Grown Foods Same As That Using Commercial Products", appearing in the March 10, 2000 Sante Fe New Mexican, had this to say about the subject: "Promoted and accepted by many people is the theory that foods grown "naturally" provide greater nutrition ... But absolutely no scientific evidence that this is so was gleaned by the Michigan Experiment Station in a 10 year study, or by the U.S. Plant, Soil and Nutrition Laboratory in Ithaca, New York in a 25 year program, or in a 34-year-long study on an experimental research farm in England. These studies found that while soil improvement can increase the yield and size of crops, the nutrition factors of the food grown in such soil aren't altered ...

All food scientists agree that all fertilizer elements have to be in a soluble form before any plant can use them ... Once converted into the soluble form, the plant neither knows the difference nor does it make different use of them. Now, before anyone takes me to task for advocating the use of chemical fertilizers—as these quotes seem to do—let me explain my position further. There's an adage in organic gardening that goes like this: "When fertilizing, always remember that the objective of the organic method is to feed the soil, not necessarily the plant." In other words, if you build your soil with organic material, you will eventually provide enough nutrients to grow healthy produce.

The spreading of chemical fertilizers, however, does just the opposite: It feeds the crops and not the land. The result is that the micro-organisms which break down organic material into the chemical form that plants can use are starved out, and the soil literally dies. Purely and simply, to put raw chemical fertilizer on the soil is not unlike giving hard narcotics to a human being. A man on a steady maintenance dose of heroin, for example, can live a completely "normal" life as long as he receives that dose. If the drug is taken away from him, he suffers withdrawal symptoms and can no longer function. It's the same with the land. Once the natural micro-organisms have been destroyed by artificial fertilizers, the soil is to all intents a "junkie." Nothing will grow on it unless it receives its dose of chemicals. In hydroponic gardening, however, there is no soil, so the plants can be fed the exact nutrients they need for rapid growth and volume production.

Does this sound like a typical agribusiness statement? Maybe so ... but bear in mind that the earth is already unable to feed its continually growing population. That's one reason why chemicals are being used: "Natural" methods can no longer keep up with the tremendous demand for food. The situation is bad, and getting worse. Doesn't it make more sense to solve a part of our problem with hydroponic methods rather than poison our cropland beyond the point of recovery?