If Your Veggies Weren’t Grown in Soil, Can They be Organic? | Civil Eats

If Your Veggies Weren’t Grown in Soil, Can They be Organic?

A new report by a government task force on hydroponic farming has left this raging debate wide open.

hydroponic tomatoes

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.

As indoor urban farms continue to show up in more and more neighborhoods around the country, an important question has come to the fore: Can food that’s not grown in soil be certified organic? In other words, can produce that spends its entire life indoors, floating in water, or growing in synthetic material carry the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) organic label?

These are the questions at the heart of a vociferous debate raging within the organic farming community. To help settle these questions, in 2015 the USDA established a committee known as the U.S. National Organic Program’s Hydroponic and Aquaponic Task Force. That committee released a report last week, but its conclusions—which will form the basis of recommendations for the federal organic program’s standards—are anything but conclusive. And they are causing considerable distress among the many farmers who believe the U.S.—like elsewhere around the world—should forbid organic certification of food grown in anything other than soil.

In the report the USDA concluded that the agency’s National Organics Standards Board (NOSB)—an advisory group made up of farmers, scientists, and industry representatives­—will “ultimately have to recommend its clear intention for the role of soil.” Yet it also says, “there appear to be…choices that satisfy both” a requirement that certified organic produce be grown in soil and ways in that certain soil-less, containerized growing methods could meet organic standards.

In other words, it didn’t take a definitive stance. But it also appears to have opened the door to organic certification of hydroponics and other soil-less crop production. This has outraged a large number of organic farmers who say this undermines the very basis of organic farming.

Included in the task force report is a letter to Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, signed by organic farmers and organizations representing 2.2 million people calling for an immediate moratorium on all new hydroponic certification.

While this may sound deep in the weeds for most consumers, the outcome could have an enormous impact on what Americans know about the food they buy—particularly if they’re choosing organics. “Organic [farming] is kind of at a crossroads about how food is going to be produced in the future,” Nate Lewis, the Organic Trade Association’s farm policy director told Civil Eats.

Soil-less Production v. Traditional Organics

Back in 2010, the NOSB recommended that non-soil growing operations couldn’t be certified as organic. But, in the absence of specific, enforceable regulations, USDA has in fact been certifying hydroponic and other soil-less growing operations. And such produce—salad greens, tomatoes, cucumbers, herbs, and strawberries are currently the most common soil-less crops—is currently being sold with the organic label.

As Cornucopia Institute senior scientist Linley Dixon explains, “The National Organic Program has said it cannot enforce the recommendation because it didn’t clearly state that hydroponics were prohibited.”

Proponents of hydroponic and other soil-less growing methods say their operations offer a way to grow produce that is water–efficient and free of pesticides, and do so closer to markets than many U.S. agricultural centers.

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Paul Lightfoot, CEO of BrightFarms, a multi-facility indoor farming operation, said in a statement that the company “believes that hydroponically grown crops that meet the requirements of USDA organic standards should be eligible for organic certification.” BrightFarms, which grows salad greens and other produce hydroponically, doesn’t “seek organic certification” because some of its fertilizers don’t meet organic standards. But the company doesn’t use pesticides, Lightfoot added.

But organic farmers like Dave Chapman who owns and runs Long Wind Farm in East Thetford, Vermont, say that eliminating soil from the process undermines the very basis of organic farming.

Absence of synthetic pesticides and fertilizers is typically what comes to mind in a casual definition of organic. But farmers point out that organic farming is rooted in practices that promote healthy soil and focus on feeding the soil rather than the plants alone. This means not only cultivating successful crops, but also fostering a healthy growing environment by enhancing biological activity within the soil.

The idea, says Chapman, is that by “maintaining a high level of life in the soil, you don’t need to use pesticides and fungicides because the plants are healthy.” OTA’s Lewis also explains that organic crops rely on this healthy diversity of microbes to process nutrients, whereas conventional crops are now typically fed fertilizers in forms that don’t need microbial processing. This may also be true of some hydroponics and other soilless growing methods.

“Biologically active, fertile soil is key to long-term healthy food and healthy soil,” explains Eliot Coleman of Four Season Farm in Harborside, Maine. “It turns out we were right about this,” he says. Organic farming, he points out, is “now big business.” As a result, “others are trying to get their hands on that label,” he says of those both within and outside USDA who are saying “you don’t need soil” to qualify as organic.

Expanding or Co-opting?

At the same time, not all soil-less growing systems are the same. Marc Oshima, chief marketing officer and co-founder of AeroFarms, says the company’s produce which is grown in specially designed soil-less materials, says “We know we have a very healthy biome in our root system. We think about all the elements that create a healthy product.” There are also aquaponic operations such as those used by Milwaukee-based GrowingPower that use fish like tilapia and yellow perch to fertilize plants, and grow the fish and crops together in a recirculating system that shares nutrients. Aquaponics can, therefore, rely less on added nutrients than hydroponics.

Both Chapman and Coleman concede that proponents of hydroponic and other such growing methods are likely to win their argument for USDA organic certification. “It’s about money,” says Chapman, referring to the current $40 billion dollar-a-year organic food industry.

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Coleman likens the expansion of the label to stealing hard-won territory. “We labeled our produce organic because we were proud of what we were doing. If they have something good,” he says of soilless growers, “let them label it.”

“We applaud a consistent application of organic standards as being soil-based. They should be consistent with what’s done everywhere else,” said Oshima. But, he points out, “Organic certification has been around for two decades now, but there’s still confusion around what it means.” He would like to see more transparency and more consistency in what growers are required to share with consumers, however produce is grown.

Even the task force report concedes that the outcome of its recommendations are vital to the future or organic certification. “No matter what one thinks about which path is best, we can all accept that many in the organic community are opposed to the inclusion of hydroponic as organic. Failure to address that concern will inevitably undermine public and farmer support for the USDA Organic label,” states the report.

The task force’s report is open for public comment. The NOSB is expected to release its proposal for any organic certification of hydroponics and other soil-less agriculture after its November meeting in St. Louis.

Elizabeth Grossman was a senior reporter for Civil Eats from 2014 to 2017, where she focused on environmental and science issues. She is the author of Chasing Molecules, High Tech Trash, Watershed and other books. Her work appeared in a variety of publications, including National Geographic News, The Guardian, The Intercept, Scientific American, Environmental Health Perspectives, Yale e360, Ensia, High Country News, The Washington Post, Salon, The Nation, and Mother Jones. She passed away in July 2017, leaving behind a legacy of dedication to her mission of journalism that supports and protects people and the planet. Read more >

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  1. Bryan
    Aquapoinic farming is more organic than any other method of farming and has the greatest tasting, fastest grow rate of any other form of food production. The usda is so full of it, and to be the judge and jury on what you can grow and eat, seems like a nazi, hitler food system. The more aquaponics system we set up the more power we take back from the government! If I could post pictures of the difference in growing and the lack of pesticides use, and the quality of the food is amazing, and to literally go from your back or front yard or balcony or porch or window seal to your table is the most organic natural food you can put in your body.
  2. Lasertop
    My Hats off to the Organic industry, they have managed to label the way they did farming hundreds of years ago as superior to how they do it today. It would be like me promoting a Black and White Analog television as better than anything else on the market and not only getting people to believe it but to pay me a premium price for my product. So of course Hydroponic Farming isn't organic, it's a new way of doing things and muddies up the message of Old is good.
    • AgSciGuy
      Organic food has always been a marketing scam. How else are you going to get people to pay for food product has no health advantages, no nutritional advantages, costs more to produce, and damages the environment. (Organic food requires more land or resources produce the same output.)
    • Matthew Wheeland
      ^ citations needed.
  3. The solution is to require a label on any organic crop-based product that is grown in a container with a growing medium that is not in direct contact with soil. This would cover everything that now falls under the rather broad category of hydroponics and aquaponics.

    The implication that organic would no longer be about soil is ludicrous. Organic is indeed about soil, but it is about more than soil too. Here is my blog post on this subject from May 16th:

  4. Jane Peters
    Organic should only be grown in real soil. Not chemically grown. These people want to sell produce that has been grown in chemical solutions for organic prices. It's the old bait and switch routine.
  5. Joanie Steele
    I agree they need to "label it" or brand it them selves. It is different and should be shown as such.
  6. Eliot Coleman
    Organic farmers have fought for over 100 years to establish the importance of a biologically active fertile soil as the basis for a productive and pest-free agriculture. Fertile soil is the answer to properly nourishing plants, livestock, and human beings. The early organic farmers realized that pest-free plants with active immune systems are a direct result of the soil building techniques stressed by the organic movement. A whole new world of biologically based agricultural research has been born following the organic model. If the USDA prevails in certifying soil-less hydroponic as organic, we will have lost 100 years of progress towards what farming can truly be.
  7. Jerry Combs
    I have also heard arguments about open air organic farming versus closed air hydroponic organic farming. It is my opinion that the closed system should be certified organic and the open air farming should be certified as WeHAPIO (we hope and pray its organic). Why? Open air farming is subject to pesticidal drift, herbicidal drift, pollution, water runoff, animal and insect infiltration, etc. where as the closed system has none of that. End the end; do you buy organic soil or organic produce to eat? That is the question and I buy and eat produce not soil.

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