Op-ed: Why You Can’t Have Organic Food Without Soil | Civil Eats

Op-ed: Why You Can’t Have Organic Food Without Soil

Hydroponic farming is missing one very important ingredient, and a whole way of thinking that goes along with it.

March 23, 2020 update: A federal judge in a U.S. District Court in California this week ruled that hydroponic farmers continue to be eligible for certification under the USDA Organic label.

Long time supporters of organic food need to realize that the ground is shifting beneath their feet. Rapidly. Ever since the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) was given control of the word in 2000, the integrity of the “USDA Certified Organic” label has been on a downhill slope.

We now have 4,000-cow dairies with very limited access to pasture and 1,000-acre vegetable fields fed fertilizers of suspicious provenance producing food that is called organic. But, even more dismaying, we also now have certified organic hydroponics.

What’s wrong with that?

For starters, there isn’t any soil in hydroponic production. One of the appeals of organic food is that it is grown in a biologically active, fertile soil. That type of soil adds immeasurably to the plants’ nutritional value.

In an ideal farming system, soils are nourished, as in the natural world, with farm-derived organic matter and mineral particles from ground rock. Green manures and cover crops are included within crop rotations to maintain biological diversity. It’s a “plant positive” rather than “pest negative” philosophy, focused on growing vigorous, healthy plants and animals imbued with all their natural powers of resistance.

The original USDA definition of “organic” stressed “soil biological activity” as one of the processes enhanced by organic practices. But to many farmers’ dismay, the agency rewrote that definition in 2002 to remove any reference to the word soil.

Then, in 2010, the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB), the group of farmers, scientists, and public interest advocates in charge of recommending changes to the organic standards, strenuously objected to the inclusion of soil-free farming in the standards. In their recommendation, they wrote:

The abundance of organisms in healthy, organically maintained soils form a biological network, an amazing and diverse ecology that is ‘the secret,’ the foundation of the success of organic farming accomplished without the need for synthetic insecticides, nematicides, fumigants, etc.

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Despite this objection, Miles McEvoy, the director of the National Organic Program (NOP), has unilaterally allowed organic hydroponics. And many of the organic certifying agencies have jumped right on the bandwagon and started certifying hydroponic operations.

Now, investors are pouring money into hydroponic “vertical farms” where production is hermetically sealed in huge warehouses filled with LED lights and nutrient pumps.

Some of the regional certifying agencies have refused to certify hydroponic operations. That’s a step in the right direction, but what will they do when the produce from “vegetable factories” begins putting their local soil-based growers out of business?

Back in the 1990s, I engaged in long conversations with many of the organic bureaucrats who participated in establishing federal organic standards. I told them that organic should be left alone as the historical word for the overall concept. The quest to figure out how to grow the most nutritious food with the least environmental stress is still a continuing process.

I suggested that anyone selling food without chemicals should create their own label and explain the standards enforced by that label. Such a system was in use in Europe up until the late 1990s. Labels like Nature et Progres, BioFarm, Lemaire-Boucher, Demeter, and even the Swiss supermarket chain Migros, all published the standards to which their chemical-free labels adhered and enrolled farmers who sold under their label. Customers had a range of choices as to how much purity they wished to pay for.

The benefit of that system was that when new research came out, the customers could see which labels had responded, and shift their purchases as they saw fit, forcing the other labels to shape up. In other words, it was a system driven by customer pressure. If one of the labels allowed hydroponics, the customers would know and could decide for themselves, and customers who were aware of the nutritional benefits of plants grown in soil, would patronize the other labels.

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Under present organic standards, customers who believe in a soil-based agriculture don’t know when their food is produced hydroponically because that information is nowhere on the label.

Fertile soil is the most important factor in organic growing because of all its known and yet to be discovered benefits on the nutritional quality of crops. Hydroponic growing removes the crucial soil factor and replaces it with soluble nutrient solutions that can in no way duplicate the complex benefits of soil.

The traditional motto of organic growing is “Feed the soil, not the plant.” Hydroponic growing is based on the opposite strategy. 2015 is International Year of Soils. Let’s mark this important milestone by insisting that the USDA keep the soil in organic farming.

Eliot Coleman is a farmer at Four Season Farm and the author of The New Organic Grower, Four Season Harvest and The Winter Harvest Handbook. He has more than 40 years' experience in all aspects of organic farming, including field vegetables, greenhouse vegetables, rotational grazing of cattle and sheep, and range poultry. During his careers as a commercial market gardener, the director of agricultural research projects, and as a teacher and lecturer on organic gardening, he studied, practiced and perfected his craft. Coleman served for two years as the Executive Director of the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements and was an advisor to the U.S. Department of Agriculture during their landmark 1979-80 study, "Report and Recommendations on Organic Farming." Read more >

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  1. Josh
    I think the main issue with hydroponics is the reliance on chemical nutrient solutions, usually derived from the same unsustainable sources as synthetic fertilisers. But with the use of compost teas or the waste from fish in an aquaponics system, with a microbial ecosystem, I don't really find an issue with it. Especially when hydroponics can be far more sustainable by using less water, reducing contact with diseases/pests (that live in soil) and bypassing soil erosion issues.

    It should certainly be labelled as being produced hydroponically though, in case one day we do find soil has something healthful that we can't (yet) replicate.
  2. Matt
    Re: your suggestion of self-created labeling standards, Whole Foods has recently created a new produce rating system that tracks soil health, energy and water usage, waste practices, farmworker welfare, pollinator protection and and pest management practices.
  3. Many, many thanks for this article that says it all! Like everything else, it seems that "organic" is getting co-opted by way too many interests that do NOT operate in the spirit of what most of us understand as "organic".....
  4. Dominc D
    Some sort of hugely water-conserving "hydroponics" use is NECESSARY for California, where half the fruits and vegetables are grown, and where the drought and groundwater will not sustain the present system.

    Let the hydroponics organics drive the glyphosate-mad industrial vegetable farmers away from their current Frankenfood methods.

    But beware (always) of the money-driven industrial agriculture complex, that will attempt to "water down" regulations regarding what can be put in the water to produce a lot of cheap produce.

    That said, separate labeling makes total sense, whether it be large hydroponics, aquaponics, or in-soil organic. Let "in-soil organic" be the Gold Standard.
  5. Jared Smith
    It is an absolute myth that plants need organic conditions to properly grow. In fact they can grow just fine, under completely artificial hydroponic conditions without ever seeing the first bit of natural sunshine using chemical fertilizers and nutrients. Truth is organic cultivation is not symbiotic, it's all out biological warfare.

    Japan has taken the lead in this area, converting old electronics factories into salad green production farms such as one in Tokyo owned by Toshiba which maintains strict cleanroom controls, the same which are used to manufacture semiconductors. Because of this there are no diseases and pests, the produce lasts longer on the shelves, is healthier, and you don't even have to wash it before consumption.
  6. Mary M
    That's hilarious. You want the government to establish what is essentially your philosophical preference? I cannot figure out the organic industry. They are sure the government is in the pocket of big food, but want the government to set the rules.

    Why don't you establish your own system--just like Kosher has done--and you can create different levels of purity for your standards. And stop trying to keep others from competing using your arbitrary rules.
  7. It just makes a whole mockery out of the word "organic" for the short term gain of organisations trying to make a profit.

    Once people realise this then actual organic sales will be effected.

    Such a shame.
  8. In view of all the chemicals that can be sprayed on produce and still be considered "organic", your arguments sound similar to what must have occurred when science first started to think the world wasn't flat, and lots of folks didn't agree. The primary danger of pesticides is residue from spray. A plant will take up a nitrogen molecule, whether it's from microbe activity in the soil, or from a dirty pair of socks, or in a hydroponic solution. It's just a molecule to the plant. The other thing missing from your opinion on "organic" is the fact that hydroponics uses a tiny fraction of the water that is used by soil farming, organic or conventional. Ask someone from California or Texas if that's of any interest to them.
  9. Joan Gussow
    Thanks Eliot. All of us needed that clear thinking.
  10. Michael
    Using less land for farming goes against organic doctrine? Even organic is disruptive to natural ecosystems...
  11. Judy
    Even in tiny Israel, where the lack of agricultural space necessitates vertical farming, it's done in soil!
  12. I have extensive nutritional testing results of organic, soil, hydro and Aquaponic that disagree...
  13. One reason plants grown in soil can be more nutritious is because they feed on microbial metabolites, which are a more efficient form of plant nutrition. Through the symbiotic relationship between the plant and the active soil biology, a plant expends less energy in-taking the nutrients it needs. Furthermore, when plants have excess energy, they can store it in an active rhizosphere for use later in a growth cycle or in subsequent growing seasons. This is not possible in a traditional hydroponic system. It is theoretically possible to produce a hydroponic system that takes this into account and also offers the water conservation benefits of hydroponic systems. The "Organic Hydroponic" standard could be changed to account for this truth
  14. I think that we should insist that the USDA keep the soil in organic farming, so that we know when were getting a watered down version of a true organic product,
  15. Aaron
    I think you did some nice research for your article but are in fact rather poorly informed regarding modern methods of hydoponic food production. Many hydroponic companies offer OMRI rated nutrient solutions produced from natural sources like kelp and seaweed. They also include fungal and microbial innoculants in the reservoir to increase nutrient uptake and plant health. They nurture life in their medium/reservoirs just as soil gardeners do.
    And they don't all just grow in a tub of water as you fail to mention. Many use perlite/vermiculite with broken down peat as their medium. AKA Promix which correct me if I'm wrong is used by many an organic soil gardener. Increase your knowledge of new hydoponic plant growth before your next one :)
  16. Thank you very much Mr Coleman for raising your voice against this nonsense. I am discussing this "certification drift" with my students when introducing the various categories of urban agriculture and the science of market gardening here in Belgium. I hope we can meet up one day as I have read your books with utmost interest!
  17. Tom Eickenberg
    Thank you Eliot
  18. This article lacks the level of detail needed to meaningfully engage with these issues. Of key importance in this discussion, and entirely absent from this piece, is the distinction between synthetic hydroponics and organic hydroponics.

    Synthetic hydroponics uses synthetic fertilizers that provide nutrients for plant growth in readily available ionic form. The nutrient solution is kept sterile or as close to sterile as possible. Many toxic chemicals are used throughout the process and the inputs are often energy intensive and environmentally destructive.

    Organic hydroponics is an emerging trend and involves the same natural biological cycles that make soil. Organic hydroponics uses all organic materials and s process similar to compost
  19. Kevin
    Forget hydroponics, that product is no better than the conventional slop they call food. This development really emphasizes the need for labelling. I'm still waiting to see a nutritional comparison between aquaponics with worms in beds and organic soil produce. Really wondering why no ones done this.

    With the pending world water issues AP makes sense. Creating a natural fish food, duck weed, soldier fly larva, veg scraps....? and including vermiculture in the growing beds should create rich biology to nourish the plants.

    The sooner we can get these results the quicker we can concentrate our real food efforts to maximize resources and efficiency.
  20. Sean
    All hydroponics and more popular is AquaPonics... These systems still use media beds for the most part to keep the worms in and add the nutritional value soil bring to the table... For the most part when NASA developed Hydroponics in the late 60s early 70s it was all based on giving the plants exactly what they needed as well as what the end consumer needs. This research into the health of the plant and what minerals are essential is one of the reasons traditional soil farmers have been FORCED to participate in the 2015 YEAR OF SOIL Quality. Flat out traditional farmers have dropped that ball producing GMO rotten cancer causing produce that has to be shipped from hundreds of miles away. Aquaponics can be done local, it is the future!
  21. We all the members of the CHAMF agree with you. NOBS and NOP, or any other agency or any authority , haven't rights to change the nature's ethical rules.Products of SOIL less farmings can be defined as whatever they are, it should be mentioned or marked clearly on such products that these are grown without Soil. Selling these so called certified hydroponic organic produce along with Soil grown organic products is like the CHEATING with organic consumers, , And it's simply a crime my friends, yes it's crime. .
  22. Marcus
    Nowhere in the article does the author explain what exactly the benefits of soil-grown organic food supposedly have over hydroponic farming. The second last paragraph basically reads "soil-grown organics are better because of all the reasons for which they are better", which doesn't mean anything. All research points to hydroponics having a much richer nutritional content than non-organically soil-grown food, on the same level as - or above - that of organically soil-grown food. The main difference between them is that hydroponics has many environmental benefits, while organically soil-grown produce has no advantages over hydroponics, as far as science has found.
  23. If I buy organic, which I do some of the time, one of the things I want is for my purchase to 'be good for wildlife'. Organic farming based on soil and 'natural recycling' based on composting wastes is brilliant for biodiversity. The non-use of pesticides and herbicides means a much better environment in the fields where the crops grow.

    I don't consider hydroponics to be organic, as they are too reliant on (mainly) fossil inputs. I don't know what the standards are in the UK but I'll be sharing this on fb to ask my more knowledgeable friends.

    If the UK 'Organic' label doesn't include hydroponics, that's another reason to oppose TTIP, as we'd be forced to adopt the US 'lower standard' or be sued.
  24. Tom
    Critics of Eliot most likely don't understand soils and their complexity. They think organic liquid fertilizers are equivalent, they are not. Plants evolved with soils, thinking you can replace soils with solutions and perlite is foolish. Try farming for a living and you'll get it if you can survive the first season. These "controlled" environment" agriculture solutions are way more expensive than properly run organic farms using cutting edge techniques. Rather than relying on growing food in deserts or irrigation dependent CA, we should grow more food in other states like we used to.
  25. I have been farming organically for decades,and I have been saying for years that organic hydroponics is an oxymoron. The soil is what it is all about.
  26. John Herlihy
    Thanks for the interesting article. I think it is important that consumers know where there food comes from and make informed choices about what we and our families eat. Although I agree with you on that point, you did not convince me that soil grown food is inherently better or more nutritious. You mention that they do not have the same protection from parasites or pests, but grown indoors there is less worry about this! You mention that good soil add immeasurable nutrition, but if you can't measure it, what is it? Is there no tangible benefit to the eater? If there isn't I would rather have pesticide free hydroponic lettuce than pesticide free soil grown lettuce. People should know what they eat, and the information they get is crucial.
  27. Richard Dean Jacob
    I totally agree with the person above saying: "Let 'in-soil organic' be the Gold Standard."

    YES there IS a 'difference' .. have you heard of BioPhotons for starters? .. check out the following PDF .


    see this >
  28. Nagi
    It's a CAFO for vegetables...I read a book on vertical farming that outlined how we are getting further and further away from nature with CAFO's and chemicals....thiese vegetable towers are the furthest away from nature that you can get. Can we just agree that we don't know what we're doing and try to listen to mother nature? She's been doing it right for hundreds of millions of years. I think she knows a thing or two more than we do.
  29. This is yet another reason for Europeans to oppose the TTIP that currently is being negotiated secretly between EU an US.
  30. Cynthia Mellon
    Are there recent and reliable studies comparing the nutritional levels of organic, soil-grown vegetables to those grown hydroponically? Any suggestions for where to look? My guess is that hydroponic would be nutritionally inferior A hydroponic operation has just started in my city and is being touted as a job producer. I need some solid arguments about the quality of the product.
  31. Science has yet to synthesize the entire range of nutrients utilized in growth. Short life crops can be grown hydroponically, but logically, they have to be nutrient deficient when compared to plants grown in soil. Indeed, many crops simply do not produce in a hydroponic environment.

    I have yet to figure out how a business can operate producing hydroponically grown plants (we experimented with it). The cost is prohibitive - the water and electricity required are horrendous (far more costly than land, and requiring far more water). To call it "organic" as though it is somehow organically superior is a joke given the massive amounts of resources it requires.

    It does not make sense nutritionally, economically, or environmentally.
  32. Jack Linton
    Thanks for writing this article. I think that this is a topic that requires more dialogue and discussion in the community.

    My question, Elliot, is how do you feel about container growing? Must organic cultivation be in the ground? Must it use only sun for energy?

    The organic regulations allow for recirculating container growing in a soil-less medium made of organic matter and water soluble organic "soil amendments". Where does container growing end and hydroponic growing begin? In a situation that would be typically considered hydroponic, we've simply reduced the size of the container. All of the beneficial fungi and bacteria can still be functionally included in the system. Any evidence that this would produce inferior nutritional value?
  33. Stephen Barrow
    The IFOAM 2014 Norms clearly defines "soil" in the context of organic agriculture and that cultivation must take place therein.
  34. isabel.escobosa@uabc.edu.mx
    thank you for the information, is very important
  35. Gayle Mooney
    Where's the research? Is the scientific proof that hydroponic food is less nutritious than organic food from soil?
  36. Angela Miller
    Instead of racing for "new and improved" and confusing the heck out of consumers, try going back to basics that work! Organic, chemical-free food that comes from the soil.
  37. Elaine Mackee
    I am deeply committed to clear labelling I live in Lund,BC and buy bio-dynamic vegetables or am learning to grow my own. I appreciate any information that can help us make healthy choices. Thank you for your important work!!
  38. Mel
    Organic produce has been loosely used since the monetization of it has been valued over the consumer. The answer is not to attack hydro or aquaponic which can utilize the same mediums peat moss,coco, perlite, vermiculite as soil and in some cases the same slow released fertilizers from biological sources as soil. Where are the empirical studies that substantiate the nutritional claims of soil organics being better?? Lest we not forget the e. Coli and salmonella are all soil borne pathogens you won't find in conventional Hydroponics. Hydroponics isn't a new phenomenon at all do your research.
  39. Marchy
    The title is some what misleading. Hydroponics isn't new and for those who have not heard of of hydroponics should look it up. You can have healthy, nutritious, organic food without soil. The hydroponics itself isn't the issue. The issue is what is being used to grow the plants. From what I read, hydroponic systems typically involve fish that feed the plants with their waste that acts like a fertilizer and the plants give back and feed the fish, hence creating a miniature ecosystem and less energy is wasted. This is actually sorely needed in places where there is hardly any water.
  40. jennifer oakley
    please keep organic standards strong.
  41. Chris Sherbon
    Is it any wonder that consumers are cynical about food provenance when the standards organisations simply move the goal posts and re-write the rules.
    In Australia we managed to remove the label 'organic water' because it's not a product of agriculture. Neither is hydroponics: nutrient chemicals in solution are not themselves organic.
    When are regulators going to stop listening to lobby groups and operators whose only desire is to get around the rules for their own advantage, to dupe consumers and to contribute nothing?
  42. Pedro Osores
    Si existe una agricultura organica e aereoponica que usa compost y humus de lombriz como suelo asi se garantizan los nutrientes de la naturaleza vean en web Sunstateorganics.com
  43. G. Embry
    More and more people, like me, are frustrated by ambiguous labels. If we can we grow our own food, because we cannot trust the USDA and others involved. All we want is to know and chose what we put in our bodies.
  44. john
    This leaves out a lot of facts, like you can replace everything the plant needs in a hydroponic system. That there is no soil disease and no bad stuff from animal waste, like e. coli, listeria.

    Did you know, they even use human waste on organic food?

    Please, next time talk to someone who has worked in a greenhouse, or someone who knows the science behind growing plants, before posting this article that makes it painfully obvious you do not know what you are talking about.

    When you can replace everything the plant needs, and measure those parameters, it makes it silly to say that we must grow in soil.

    Lastly, I have been around the organic market for 10 years, and have never heard this motto “Feed the soil, not the plant.”
  45. I agree fully that hydroponic and aeroponic produce grown should not be labeled as organic, because it is not. That does not mean it is any more nutritious, in fact according to the University of Mississippi the opposite can be true. http://www.hindawi.com/journals/ecam/2014/253875/
  46. Maddness Evergreen
    Mr. Coleman, I've been a farmer, practicing organic production for my whole life. Born to the land. I am also a farm educator, a farm -based business specialist, and a community organizer; among other related things. I have all of your books and have learned so much from them (and therefore from you). I have grown in soil and in water, with fish and without fish. For personal use and commercial production for a CSA, + direct to restaurants, and wholesale. I understand and respect the position you are taking, but I wholeheartedly hope you can open your mind to a conversation with people who think differently about this topic and be willing to see that there is room for us all in Organic production. #evolve
  47. Roslyn Blackwood
    Thank you for this critically important insight into what i should reject as benefiting my and my family's health
  48. Dr. Yual Chiek
    I couldn't agree more. Thank you for this article.
  49. Ellyn
    While I respect organic growing I also know that the transfer on nutrients from the soil to the plant takes place at the molecular level. As the plant is taking up minerals that have been broken down to their smallest common denominator by the action of water and the fauna that water supports I fail to see why bathing a root system in a nutrient bath is vastly different. In one case the support matrix is provided by man and the other by soil but in both cases it is what nutrients are dissolved in the water that are available to the plant. Are we saying that only nutrients extracted by microorganisms in a soil matrix are what make organic. the buying public wants food grown with less pesticides, that contain nutrients.
  50. Aaron
    I believe it is fair to argue that the issue is the use of the word "organic". Organic is defined as of, relating to, or derived from living matter. That definition encompasses all of your food. Using organic to describe something that is pesticide free, sustainable, healthy, and nutritious is simply incorrect. By using "organic" as a label for these types of foods you open a Pandora's Box of issues. If we rethink what it is that you are trying to accomplish and define it correctly it makes it easier to hone in on achieving the goal and less likely for others to manipulate the cause. Hydroponic and soil growers that produce nutritious, natural, chemical free food don't need an incorrect label and they shouldn't have to fight each other
  51. Please return the definition of organic back to including only soil-grown plants! The nutritional value is what organic is all about. It is not fair to consumers to not disclose when food is grown hydroponically.
  52. jeff
    We have so little control when commercial produce is grown hundreds and thous miles away. If everything was grown locally you would realize a different set of values and opinions but reality is much is grown west coast (FYI They have no water) & out of USA with quality control on 1,000's of acres that has little control per acre and then tons of fuel to get it to mid and east coasts. I think I prefer chemical free hydroponic greenhouse grown produce (standard GH not vertical) grown near our urban cities and even as close as on top of your local supermarket (WF) in NYC!
    Everything has a trade offs - we need to look at the entire picture.

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