A series of 8-7 votes by the National Organic Standards Board (a 15-member Federal Advisory Board to the USDA) on November 1 ushered in a new age for the $47-billion U.S. organic food market. The Board voted to allow hydroponics and aquaponics to remain in the Organics Program, while not changing its rules on container growing. It did, however, remove aeroponics from the Program.
Hydroponics, aquaponics, and container growers cheered the decision. They argue that their various systems create the possibility for growing in areas short on agricultural land, and reduce water-use overall.
Matt Barnard, CEO of California hydroponic growers Plenty, told Business Insider, “We are growing fresh fruits and vegetables that are as organic as any other method,” he said. “People have spent 35 years understanding what ‘organic’ is, which is a long time. We, as a business, did not feel it would’ve been fair or equitable to cause a just-as-organic farming operation to have to explain to people something as convoluted as ‘Oh, it’s just as organic as…but not organic.’ That would’ve cost us an amount of money and years that we don’t have the budget for.””
The decision was preceded by widespread protests, and afterward brought swift and angry responses from a variety of traditional organic growers.
“Human health is connected to soil health. Without our connection to healthy, organic soil human health diminishes,” says Jeff Moyer, executive director of the Rodale Institute, in an email to Food Quality & Safety. The Rodale Institute is a Pennsylvania non-profit organic research and advocacy organization founded in 1947. “Organic is all about feeding the soil, not the plant. Hydroponics is all about feeding the plant since there is no soil. It goes against every tenet of the organic principles. It is a one-to-one substitution program for conventional agriculture. The NOP (National Organic Program) and NOSB worked to insure animals have access to pasture and a connection to the soil. We spent years to define what pasture is, even dairy cows are in contact with the soil. Now we are going to have to define what soil is and defend why plants don’t need to be grown in it.”
Mark A. Kastel of Wisconsin’s Cornucopia Institute, which advocates for “family-scale farming,” says the decision undermines the soil-oriented foundation values that created the organic movement in the first place, and may undermine consumer goodwill. Additionally, he argues the decision would mean that traditional soil-based organic farms would find it increasingly difficult to compete with industrial-scale hydroponics now admitted to the Organics Program. He characterises the decision as “corrupt,” hinging on the vote “of a single USDA bureaucrat.”
“If nothing changes, in certain commodities—and this has already started shifting in tomato, pepper, and cucumber production—soil-based organic producers will not be able to compete in the wholesale marketplace and consumers will only have access to nutritionally substandard produce,” Kastel tells Food Quality & Safety. “Passages in the Organic Foods Production Act and [related] regulations require the careful stewardship of soil fertility as a prerequisite to certification. How can a farmer work to improve soil fertility without soil? Our legal team is researching a potential federal lawsuit right now.”
Marty Mesh has been an organic grower since 1973, and helped found the Florida Certified Organic Growers & Consumers Inc. in 1989, an organization of which he has been executive director since 1995.
While other traditional organics growers were coming down more aggressively against the decision, Mesh tells Food Quality & Safety, “Our certification program, we don’t have a dog in the fight. They tell us the rules and that’s what we enforce to determine standards compliance by growers.”
However, he underlines repeatedly his belief that the best way forward would involve mandatory labeling for food grown hydroponically or in other new media.
“Consumers who are passionate about healthy soil, which of course is the central point of organic—healthy soil makes healthy plants make healthy people—they should be able to see which products are grown hydroponically versus which were grown in the dirt,” Mesh says. “I think if they’re going to have it, they should label it, recognizing that soil is such a healthy component of organic farming. There’s a core group of dirt-farmers who are very passionate about it and say that we’ve lost our way.”
The USDA has lost an enormous opportunity, he says, to determine who among organics buyers is buying for what reason.
“We could have found out if what hydroponic growers were saying was correct, that what people really care about is the lack of pesticides,” he says. “Consumers’ voices were very mixed. Both sides brought out their own consumer-survey data.
Mesh underlines that he does not advocate for truly hydroponic operations, but he is interested in remaining cautiously open to the possibility that technology might change organic growing in a way that keeps food and people healthy, though always clearly labeled. In a time of droughts across the west, he notes that container operations and greenhouse growers may have a point.
One of the few neutral voices in a very partisan debate, Mesh acknowledges that this is a time of rupture in the organic growing world. He says of the NOSB decision, “It was still a very divided vote—eight to seven. You can’t have more a fractured community than that.”