A controversial ruling by the USDA will allow farmers to grow food considered ‘organic’ without the need for real soil.
On November 1, members of the the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB), which functions as an advisory board to the USDA, voted to allow hydrophonic and aquaphonic farms to remain certified organic.
Sierraclub.org reports: In the months leading to the vote, organic farmers organized 15 rallies around the country with signs reading, “Real Farmers Do it in the Dirt” and “Don’t Water Down Organics with Hydroponics.”
In a last-ditch effort to speak out in support of what they see as preservation of the integrity of organic certification, dozens of them packed the NOSB’s two-day-long meeting earlier this month in Jacksonville, Florida.
The NOSB did vote against continuing to allow aeroponically grown crops, which typically have to be sprayed with nutrients, to use the organic-certified label. But hydroponics and aquaponics are still fair game—and organic traditionalists say this decision likely came down to market considerations.
“The National Organic Program’s mission seems to be changing from serving the organic community to serving corporate agriculture,” says Dave Chapman, a longtime Vermont-based organic tomato farmer.
Chapman points out that in 2010, the NOSB voted 14-1 to exclude soil-less forms of growing; the USDA, however, opted not to take the recommendation, prompting the past seven years’ debate on the subject. “What changed between now and then? A multi-million-dollar hydroponic industry with powerful lobbyists is what’s changed,” Chapman says.
He’s referring to global hydroponic market, which is projected to hit $490.50 million by 2023. In the United States, approximately 100 hydroponic operations are already certified organic. Investors tend to see agri-technologies—such as those that allow crops to grow in artificially lit, vertical indoor stacks, or in water-filled containers with farmed fish or other aquatic animals whose waste supplies plants with nutrients—as profitable ventures, given their potential for high yields.
Some organic farming pioneers, now mourning what they see as the devaluation of the organic brand they fought for decades to establish, see the ruling as a way to allow corporate agriculture to continue to infringe on their $47 billion industry. So in a sense, the dirt debate invokes the age-old Davis vs. Goliath question of whether this marks another triumph care of capitalism. (Case in point: one of the biggest container producers presently enjoying the bona fides of the USDA Organic seal is Driscoll’s—a berry giant worth nearly $3 billion whose organic supply comes from both certified in-ground and containerized production, and a company that lobbied the NOSB for continued hydroponic certification.) But at its heart, it’s a battle over food production methods and, to an extent, over the values we place on various styles of production.
What We Talk About When We Talk About Organic
Proponents of hydroponics and aquaponics say their methods of production offer an environmentally conscious solution for feeding a growing population in our rapidly changing and resource-challenged climate. “Sure, having more farmers produce food bearing the USDA Organic label creates more competition in the marketplace, but the reality is, we don’t have enough food in the U.S. to feed people, and so we import a lot of food,” says Marianne Cufone, an aquaponic farmer, environmental lawyer, and the executive director of a food security-focused nonprofit, the Recirculating Farms Coalition. “Organic food has long been cost-prohibitive, and maybe this ruling will allow urban farmers and others who don’t have access to soil to invest in organic production, create some healthy market competition, and make good food a little more affordable.”
But traditional organic advocates—many of whom Chapman says shed tears when the November 1 decision was handed down—believe that truly healthy food can only be grown in truly healthy soil. “It’s not possible to grow food with optimal nutrition in a system that doesn’t necessarily photosynthesize the sun, and carelessly ignores the soil,” he says.
But Cufone, who rejects what she describes as the stereotype of the sterile, indoor hydroponic farm (her own aquaponic operations, pictured to the right, are outdoors), insists that hydroponics and aquaponics could lead to more resilient community food systems. “Expanding production cuts down on the fossil fuels needed to import food and could really help mitigate climate change,” she says. “The NOSB is sending a critical message that sustainability and innovation are valuable in U.S. agriculture. This could spur growth of urban and rural farms alike—inclusiveness is important in our food system.”
Often, container farmers use less water than traditional farmers. The fact that controlled-environment farms can be constructed near cities carries the potential to slash transportation emissions. But critics of controlled agriculture systems point out that indoor farms often consume huge amounts of energy, negating hypothetical climate benefits. Dirt-firsters’ main argument, however, centers around the fact that “organic” is about much more than a lack of synthetic pesticides and herbicides.
Chapman points to Sir Albert Howard, the British botanist who planted the seeds of the organic movement in the 1940s. “Howard’s research showed that ‘organic’ was about building sustainable systems that are based on the looping of nutrients and resources in the soil,” says Chapman, adding that true organic farming calls for “intensive composting, obsessive marshalling of organic matter, and precise cover-cropping and rotation systems.” He says modern soil science supports Howard’s findings. “Maintaining and improving the organic matter in the soil without fail leads to an increase in plant health and fertility,” Chapman says, adding that all this is optimized when plants photosynthesize energy from the sun, outdoors. “None of these interactions are happening with hydroponics or aquaponics.”
What’s more, recent studies have proven what many organic farmers and environmentalists have long suspected: soil with high amounts of organic matter is better at sequestering carbon—and thus mitigating climate change—than other soil. As Chapman sees it, those who cash in on the lucrative organic seal have a responsibility to contribute to the planet’s “carbon sponge,” by developing and nurturing healthy, diverse soil systems. “If we change how we farm on a big scale, we can literally start to cool the planet. [Traditional organic farming] can repair broken water cycles, and desertification and drought are results of broken agriculture,” Chapman says. He says he’s worried that the organic movement could lose soil farmers to more novel tech-assisted farming methods—and that this could result in “a real loss for global society.” He adds, “And now we have to have a confusing conversation about whether certified organic food is actually organic, or if it’s fauxganic—grown without soil?”
At this month’s NOSB meeting, there was talk of compromise in the form a food label that would indicate whether a food item was grown in natural soils. Think: “USDA Organic In Ground”, “USDA Organic Hydroponic,” and “USDA Organic Aquaponic.” Cufone, for one, is fine with that, saying, “All farmers are very proud of their process and product, so more transparency is comfortable for most people.” Chapman concedes that such a system would be “better than what we have now.” However, he says he can’t support it as a solution. “It implies that organic-certified hydroponic-grown food is organic. So on some level, I’d need to accept that, but I just don’t—it’s a complete reinvention of the word [organic].”
Chapman says that among his fellow soil-loyalist compatriots, there’s early but earnest talk about jumping ship altogether and creating a new organic label. “That sounds huge, but you know, when I started doing this 35 years ago we were an alternative label, and the USDA hated us. It’s gonna be a lot of work, but we want integrity in a label, with no confusion.” As Chapman sees it, last week’s NOSB ruling amounted to a death knell for the National Organic Program. “They’re killing it,” he says. By this he doesn’t mean to imply the organic industry will be dead and gone. “It’s just going to be like a zombie having lost its soul,” he explains, “and those of us who started the movement aren’t going to stand for it, and be part of the walking dead.”