The USDA’s Organic Seal Should Not (and Must Not) Apply to Hydroponics

Linley Dixon June 5, 2017

In October 2016 in Thetford, Vt., farmers and advocates protest the potential inclusion of hydroponically-grown food among foods that can be labeled "organic" by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Grow­ing up, I told a skep­ti­cal fam­i­ly mem­ber that I want­ed to be an organ­ic farmer. He replied, Why make life dif­fi­cult for your­self by choos­ing a career that goes against convention?”

The long answer to his ques­tion would have includ­ed every­thing from the ben­e­fits of farm bio­di­ver­si­ty, nutri­ent cycling, envi­ron­men­tal stew­ard­ship, ani­mal wel­fare, reduc­tion of farm­work­er and con­sumer chem­i­cal expo­sure, pro­duc­tion of health­i­er food, and, in short, a desire to leave a piece of land bet­ter than I found it. Instead, I sim­ply replied, Because it’s the right thing to do.”

Last Novem­ber esteemed Ver­mont organ­ic green­house grow­er Dave Chap­man tes­ti­fied before the Nation­al Organ­ic Stan­dards Board (NOSB) that, if prof­its were his sole moti­va­tion as an organ­ic farmer, he would become a hydro­pon­ic grower. 

Rather than putting so much effort into car­ing for the soil by build­ing organ­ic mat­ter and fer­til­i­ty, he would see an imme­di­ate boost in yield and prof­its with a hydro­pon­ic con­tain­er sys­tem. Chap­man tes­ti­fied, Do you have any idea how prof­itable hydro­pon­ics would be for me if I called it organ­ic’? Why wouldn’t I do that? Because I believe it would be fraud. Organ­ic must be based in the soil.”

The organ­ic community’s rev­er­ence for the com­plex­i­ty of nat­ur­al soil ecosys­tems comes from the knowl­edge that thou­sands of species are inter­act­ing in diverse ways with one anoth­er and with the nat­u­ral­ly occur­ring min­er­als in soil.

Soil, plants, and ani­mal species have been coe­volv­ing for mil­lions of years. Soil con­tains fun­gi, micro-algae, pro­to­zoa, nema­todes, inver­te­brates, actin­o­mycetes (bac­te­ria that grow in fil­a­ments), nitro­gen-fix­ing bac­te­ria — even the healthy bac­te­ria that reside in our guts.

This respect for, and desire to work with, nat­ur­al com­plex­i­ty is root­ed in the organ­ic community’s embrace of a sys­tems approach to farm­ing. Organ­ic agri­cul­ture rejects the reduc­tion­ism of con­ven­tion­al sys­tems that has led to mono­cul­ture, syn­thet­ic fer­til­iz­ers, pes­ti­cides, and genet­ic mod­i­fi­ca­tion to the detri­ment of our land, water, ecosys­tems and health.

This same reduc­tion­ism has dri­ven hydro­pon­ics. Most indus­tri­al organ­ic” hydro­pon­ic oper­a­tions reduce their nutri­ent require­ments to those which can be obtained from hydrolyzed, con­ven­tion­al soy­beans. Hydrolyzed soy, fed con­tin­u­ous­ly through an irri­ga­tion sys­tem into con­tain­ers filled with coconut husk (coir), is the pri­ma­ry source of fer­til­i­ty used to pro­duce crops of organ­ic” hydro­pon­ic toma­toes, cucum­bers and pep­pers. With their vast green­hous­es full of plas­tic con­tain­ers and tub­ing, indus­tri­al hydro­pon­ic sys­tems do noth­ing to improve the land.

A hydro­pon­ic veg­etable facil­i­ty. (Image: shut­ter­stock / alter​net​.org)

How can a sys­tem com­plete­ly removed from land stew­ard­ship, glean­ing fer­til­i­ty pri­mar­i­ly from con­ven­tion­al, like­ly GMO, soy pro­duc­tion, be con­sid­ered organ­ic?”

The USDA Organ­ic Seal was devel­oped so that a mar­ket pre­mi­um could go to farm­ers who incurred addi­tion­al pro­duc­tion costs for adher­ing to high­er stan­dards. The organ­ic stan­dards incor­po­rate envi­ron­men­tal and human health, ani­mal wel­fare and sus­tain­abil­i­ty. The Organ­ic Foods Pro­duc­tion Act (OFPA) includes a firm require­ment for soil in organ­ic sys­tems because the founders rec­og­nized soil’s cen­tral role in nutri­ent cycling and sus­tain­able land management.

The U.S. Depart­ment of Agri­cul­ture’s Organ­ic Seal. (Image: USDA Agri­cul­tur­al Mar­ket­ing Service)

The law states, An organ­ic plan shall con­tain pro­vi­sions designed to fos­ter soil fer­til­i­ty pri­mar­i­ly through the man­age­ment of the organ­ic con­tent of the soil.” OFPA con­tin­ues, An organ­ic plan shall not include any pro­duc­tion or han­dling prac­tices that are incon­sis­tent with this chapter.”

Clear­ly hydro­pon­ic con­tain­er sys­tems are not com­pli­ant with the law, and they are con­trary to the spir­it of organ­ic as well. These sys­tems do not increase organ­ic mat­ter in the soil, nor do they fos­ter soil fer­til­i­ty, cycle nutri­ents or cap­ture car­bon. How­ev­er, some organ­ic cer­ti­fiers and the Nation­al Organ­ic Pro­gram (NOP) are allow­ing these hydro­pon­ic con­tain­er sys­tems to be labeled organ­ic” — push­ing true organ­ic pro­duc­ers who adhere to the law out of busi­ness, because car­ing for our land is more cost­ly than sim­ply pro­duc­ing food with­out it.

Mean­while, cer­ti­fiers adher­ing to the let­ter of the law and uphold­ing the spir­it of organ­ics, such as OneCert, Ver­mont Organ­ic Farm­ers, and Ohio Eco­log­i­cal Food and Farm­ing Assoc., are los­ing busi­ness as a result. Why would a cer­ti­fi­er choose to lose rev­enue by refus­ing to cer­ti­fy a hydro­pon­ic con­tain­er oper­a­tion if the NOP would let them get away with it? The short answer: Because it’s the right thing to do.

There will always be peo­ple who make deci­sions based on prof­it, while oth­ers reject this temp­ta­tion because of their com­mit­ment to oper­ate eth­i­cal­ly. The good food move­ment has con­tin­ued to expe­ri­ence the co-opt­ing of its lan­guage by inau­then­tic use of the words local,” fam­i­ly farm,” farm­stead,” arti­san” and even CSA” (short for com­mu­ni­ty sup­port­ed agriculture).

The orig­i­nal organ­ic stake­hold­ers lob­bied to cre­ate the Nation­al Organ­ic Pro­gram to pre­vent mis­use of the word organ­ic” by design­ing a mech­a­nism to enforce the OFPA. In the case of hydro­pon­ics, the NOP has ignored the law alto­geth­er because of pres­sure from cor­po­rate agribusi­ness. More and more, the organ­ic label has become an avenue for indus­tri­al-scale pro­duc­ers to make high­er prof­its by incor­po­rat­ing con­ven­tion­al inputs, meth­ods, and sys­tems into the organ­ic label, all with the intent of grow­ing the organ­ic market.”

But this is progress for the sake of progress. Organ­ic enforce­ment must be strong on the require­ments for bio­di­ver­si­ty, land stew­ard­ship, nutri­ent cycling, and increas­ing organ­ic mat­ter in the soil if it is to con­tin­ue to dis­tin­guish itself from con­ven­tion­al farming.

While oth­er pro­duc­tion sys­tems cer­tain­ly have their mer­its, not all of them should be called organ­ic.

(This arti­cle was orig­i­nal­ly pub­lished in the spring issue of The Cul­ti­va­tor—the Cor­nu­copia Insti­tute’s quar­ter­ly newslet­ter. The Insti­tute, through research and inves­ti­ga­tions on agri­cul­tur­al and food issues, pro­vides infor­ma­tion to fam­i­ly farm­ers, con­sumers and oth­er stake­hold­ers in the good food move­ment and to the media. They sup­port eco­nom­ic jus­tice for the fam­i­ly-scale farm­ing com­mu­ni­ty — part­nered with con­sumers — back­ing eco­log­i­cal­ly pro­duced local, organ­ic and authen­tic food.” For more infor­ma­tion vis­it cor​nu​copia​.org.)

Lin­ley Dixon is Farm and Food Pol­i­cy Ana­lyst at The Cor­nu­copia Insti­tute. She owns a veg­etable farm (mar­ket­ing through a CSA, farm to school, and at farm­ers mar­kets) in Duran­go, Colo., with her hus­band and 4‑year-old daugh­ter. Pri­or to farm­ing, she spent 15 years study­ing the impact of farm diver­si­ty on plant dis­ease lev­els. She holds a Ph.D. in Plant Pathol­o­gy from the Uni­ver­si­ty of Flori­da and a Master’s in Plant and Soil Sci­ence through West Vir­ginia University’s Organ­ic Farm Project.
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