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Organics Watchdog to Federal Panel: Hydroponically Grown Food Fails to Meet Organic Standards

The Cornucopia Institute

Farmers protest the certification of soil-less hydroponic operations as organic outside of the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) meeting in Stowe, Vt., October 2015.

When the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) meets in St. Louis, Mo., this week, they will deliberate on two of the most contentious controversies in the history of the good food movement: whether hydroponic growing (using liquid fertilizer, in sealed buildings, without soil) can be labeled organic” and whether carrageenan (a suspected carcinogen and inflammatory agent) can continue to be used as an ingredient in certified organic food.

These issues have come to a head after years of allegations that the Department of Agriculture (USDA), having been given the responsibility by Congress to protect ethical industry participants and consumers from fraud, is instead kowtowing to corporate agribusiness interests that want the organic label applied to industrial practices.

Hydroponic organic’ production is anathema to the fundamental principles that this movement was founded on,” says Mark A. Kastel, co-director of The Cornucopia Institute, a farm policy research group that acts as an organic industry watchdog.

The organic farming movement, first commercialized in earnest in the 1980s, popularized the mantra feed the soil not the plants.” This organic philosophy was a departure from industrial agriculture, where synthetic fertilizers and toxic pesticides create abundant growth while bankrupting soil fertility, resulting in food with lower nutritional value that is contaminated with chemical residues. Organic agriculture’s laser-focus was on soil fertility to create healthier plants, healthier food and a healthier environment.

Growing fruits and vegetables hydroponically (also referred to as container growing), in a slurry of conventional soybean protein, factory farm fish waste, or spoiled food collected from grocery stores, does not meet the spirit or letter of the federal law governing organics nor, most importantly, the expectation of consumers,” says Kastel.

The USDA has been quietly allowing large, multinational agribusinesses to produce enormous quantities of organic” tomatoes, peppers, berries, and other produce in mammoth greenhouses, or large industrial buildings, sealed-off from the environment and under artificial lighting.

The Cornucopia Institute alleges these facilities are operating illegally.

Early in November, Cornucopia filed a formal legal complaint charging two of the largest hydroponic operators with violating federal organic law. Both Driscoll’s and Wholesum Harvest were specifically called out for violating tenets of the federal regulations governing organic agriculture and the Organic Foods Production Act, legislation passed by Congress in 1990. Both the law and the regulations very specifically mandate careful stewardship of soil to protect the environment and assure nutritionally superior food.

In addition to the two large agribusinesses, Cornucopia also requested that the USDA investigate the two accredited organic certifiers that inspected and approved Driscoll’s and Wholesum Harvest’s hydroponic production: California Certified Organic Farmers (CCOF) and Quality Assurance International (QAI).

The hydroponic industry has formed an astroturf” group called the Coalition for Sustainable Organics in an attempt to sway public opinion. The powerful industry lobby group, the Organic Trade Association (OTA), has also joined the fray, supporting the agribusinesses and major certifiers. Together they are pushing the NOSB to retroactively approve hydroponics and reverse their 2010 position against the agricultural technology.

The Cornucopia Institute says they will be presenting proxies to the NOSB, individually signed by over 1,000 organic farmers and their customers, appealing to the NOSB to respect the law requiring nutrient rich soil in the production of organic food.


The second hot button issue facing the federal organic advisory panel at their meeting this week is the Sunset” review for the continued use of carrageenan, a controversial ingredient that acts as a coagulant and emulsifier in processed foods such as low-fat dairy products, almond, rice, and soy milks” as well as deli meats.

Independent and peer-reviewed published research, much of which is funded by the National Institutes of Health, clearly identifies carrageenan as a potent inflammatory agent,” says Cornucopia’s lead scientist, Dr. Linley Dixon. All food grade carrageenan has been found to contain dangerous properties that some studies have indicated could be related to intestinal tumor formation.”

About 50,000 eaters have signed a petition to both the FDA and the NOSB encouraging the removal of carrageenan from all food, not just organic food.

The National Organic Standards Board was set up by Congress as a diverse, 15-member organic industry stakeholder group intended to buffer organic rulemaking from the influence of corporate lobbyists. However, representatives of numerous public interest groups, including Cornucopia, have sued the USDA for violating the Organic Foods Production Act, accusing the USDA of undermining the authority of the NOSB.

One of the legal allegations is that USDA Secretary Vilsack has appointed agribusiness executives to seats that Congress reserved for working organic farmers.

Improper conflicts of interest abound on this board,” says Kastel. Approaching the hydroponic decision, we find staff members of Driscoll’s, and their certifier CCOF, serving on the board. And, it was just announced that the NOSB chair has been made CEO of Quality Assurance International, Wholesum Harvest’s certifier.”

Like banks, some organic enterprises are seen as too big to fail

Ahead of this week’s meeting, Cornucopia released an update to their NOSB voting scorecard. The web-based tool rates how current and past board members, including employees of Clif Bar, Whole Foods, WhiteWave/​Earthbound Farms, Campbell’s Soup, and Zirkle Fruit, have voted on contested issues. Wisconsin-based Cornucopia has described the organic movement as having morphed into the organic industry” with multibillion-dollar agribusinesses paying multimillion-dollar certifiers to inspect and bless their practices.

Congress devised the accreditation responsibilities at the USDA’s National Organic Program as the antidote to the inherent conflict of interest of millions of dollars being spent in the certification process,” says Kastel. With a complacent, industry-friendly regulator leading the USDA’s National Organic Program, that safeguard has broken down.”

After filing 10 separate lawsuits claiming the USDA has illegally withheld documents relating to organic enforcement and policy from the public, Cornucopia says thousands of pages were forced to be released. The documents indicate sweetheart deals between government regulators, agribusinesses, and major certifiers that the USDA has found in willful” violation of the organic standards.

Just like in banking, we sadly have some organic enterprises that are viewed by the federal government as too big to fail,’” says Kastel.

Cornucopia started monitoring these issues and reviewing all non-organic/synthetic ingredients petitioned for use in organics after publishing an investigative report, The Organic Watergate, in 2012

Due to the corporate stacking” on the NOSB, the industry watchdog has announced that they will now focus on public education of fewer individual issues, hoping that stakeholder pressure will be more effective than exclusively attempting to work through a broken regulatory oversight system.

The recent voting record of NOSB members, and illegal behavior by the USDA National Organic Program, is a grave disappointment to the many true owners of the organic label: farmers and consumers,” says Goldie Caughlan, a member of Cornucopia’s Board of Directors and a former NOSB member.

Caughlan adds, Sadly, we need to depend today on the federal courts and the court of public opinion in working with the NOSB, which more often than not is siding with corporate interests instead of with organic integrity. This meeting is where the rubber is going to meet the road.”

(“Will Corporate Interests Water Down the Meaning of Organic Food/​Farming?” was originally published on cor​ni​copia​.org. Check out their website for frequent updates on the good food movement.)

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The Cornucopia Institute, a Wisconsin-based nonprofit farm policy research group, is dedicated to the fight for economic justice for the family-scale farming community. Their Organic Integrity Project acts as a corporate and governmental watchdog assuring that no compromises to the credibility of organic farming methods and the food it produces are made in the pursuit of profit.
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