By: Heaven Bassett

For those worried about their salads during the current nationwide (and international) outbreak of E. coli O157 linked to romaine lettuce and “leafy greens,” there may be a future hope for your worries. As the CDC and FDA continue their traceback investigations, many have been left wondering what could have been done to prevent this outbreak.

Have you ever wondered if there was a way that we could reduce the risk of bacteria contaminating our greens? Wouldn’t it be nice to know that the risks for E. coli, Listeria, Salmonella, and maybe even parasites were a rare concern? Maybe, just maybe, could there be a better way for us to grow our leafy greens so that they become even healthier for us than they already are? Guess what! The technology (or rather growing practice) exists. It is called hydroponics.

Huh? Hydro-what?

Hydroponics. Let’s take a trip down the yellow brick road and take a closer look at the wonderful world of hydroponics.

Don’t let the name intimidate you. Hydroponics simply translates to “water-working.” To grow those uber-healthy greens for your organic loving lifestyle, water-working is the clever wizard behind the curtain. With E. coli outbreaks at play, contaminated water sources are on the mind. Though E. coli is regularly attributed to meats, a major contender to pathogen problems are soil and water.

This is where hydroponics may be of service. The dirt-free process of gardening can range from simple to elaborate, pending the experience and motivation of the cultivator. While some of us have used the technique with a few seedlings and a glass bowl of water as a lesson on biology, others have taken the process to intricate heights. Hydroponics is a fast-growing, safe-strategy, that offers more control than soil-based agriculture. As an eco-friendly and pathogen preventive measure, hydroponics presents the possibility of clean plant growth and year-round production.

Without hydroponics, natural and man-made variables are at play. Soil can be contaminated by a multitude of exposures. Think animal feces blended with water irrigation, coupled with aggressive pesticides, and you may just end up with an unhealthy stock of produce. That’s right, the recent E. coli outbreak has us waving a sad goodbye to that gorgeous flourish of leafy greens we just picked up from the supermarket; though, according to a recent NBC report, the exact source may not be our beloved romaine lettuce. Yet, we know the drill: When in doubt, throw it out.

Hydroponics could very well be the save all to a host of pathogen-problems. Soil is not the criminal; however, it houses the offending micro-organisms, and provides a perfect shelter for bacterium growth. Removing soil from the equation and carefully monitoring what produce roots are exposed to could diminish food-borne illnesses on a massive scale. Goodbye contaminated soil, hello nutrient rich organic grub.

Think of it this way, by focusing our attentions on the roots of the plant rather than the variable dirt conditions, we can give the produce what it needs to thrive, while protecting it from dangerous contaminants. For those who are eco-friendly, hydroponics provides more than one green benefit. Hydroponic systems use 20% less water than standard soil gardening due to targeted water use and cycling. Along with that positive, the sterile environment of hydroponics systems means pesticides are unneeded.


So, what’s the problem with hydroponics? Just as with all things, the answer takes a familiar shape: potential for human error.

It takes constant management and technical experience to efficiently manage hydroponics. Without the nutrients soil provides, produce can grow with a severe deficit. This can not only create subpar taste, but also culminate foods that are unhealthy, or dangerous, for consumption. The careful monitoring of nutrient distribution is vital in hydroponic practice.

A few things to chew on (food pun intended), is that in many circumstances soil acts as a safeguard. Hydroponic systems are not without their own disease drawbacks. Without soil, if water-based micro-organisms find their way into the stock, the entire crop is contaminated, rather than a portion of the harvest. This means regular testing is required, thus adding to the already high cost of these systems.

Speaking of pricing ventures, hydroponics are at the mercy of the power source. If a hydroponics system fails, the plants will die at a rapid pace. Hydroponic systems require more than one power fail-safe, causing the price tag to jump away from the average household.

So, is it worth it? Absolutely. According to the CDC, 265,000 STEC infections occur yearly in the good old U.S.A, 36% percent of these are from E. coli O157:H7. The full use of hydroponics could prevent those infections that have been spawned so frequently from sprouts, spinach, and other leafy vegetables. Also, with dedication, education, and thorough instruction, seasonal produce can be a thing of the past.

Garlic roasted Brussel sprouts hydroponically grown any time of the year? Don’t mind if I do.