Opinion: Keep Organic in the Soil

Organic farmer Dave Chapman is leading a coalition of soil-first farmers opposing organic certification for crops grown without.


Editor’s note: Starting today in Jacksonville, Florida, the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) is convening one of its twice-yearly public meetings. This week, the board is considering proposed changes to the National Organic Program (NOP) to include aquaponic, hydroponic, and aeroponic crops in the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Organic certification. Civil Eats invited proponents and opponents of the change to state their case. (You can read the counter-argument here.) The NOSB can offer guidance, but the final decision remains with the USDA, and it is unclear what, if any, changes the agency plans to make to the NOP.

[Update: The NOSB on November 1 voted to allow hydroponic production under the USDA Organic certification.]

The current debate about hydroponics in organic is a parable for our time. It reveals the struggle we all have in dealing with radical capitalism. While this issue is sometimes portrayed as a debate between small-scale, hipster urban farmers and traditional, aging hippies, it is actually a battle between large corporations and people fighting for integrity in the National Organic Program (NOP).

Organic farming, as originally laid out by pioneers like Albert Howard and Eve Balfour, offered a different way of seeing farming; It was a vision that embraced the natural diversity of the trillions of life forms that make up a healthy soil ecosystem—a complex ecosystem including microscopic fungi and bacteria, as well as larger organisms including springtails, nematodes, beetles, worms, slugs, birds, bees, plants, and animals.

Early observations led such farmers to focus their energies on protecting and supporting the diverse life in the soil rather than on spoon-feeding fertilizers to plants. As the old farming mantra goes, “Feed the soil, not the plant.”

As the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) meets this week in Jacksonville, Florida, a decision could be made to upend that mantra. The group is hearing proposals about whether foods grown outside of soil—hydroponic, aquaponic, and aeroponic production—can earn USDA Organic certification. It’s a momentous decision that has broad implications.

Modern industrial agriculture has followed a very different approach from those organic pioneers. Like so much of modern thinking, it is powerful, but crude. It’s based on the idea of feeding the plants, and ignoring the soil. In the case of hydroponics, they have dispensed with soil entirely.

Changes like these bring profound consequences, both good and terrible. We have reduced the amount of human labor it takes to produce food, and we have seen yields per acre go up by weight. But people working in agriculture continue to live hard lives, often in poverty. Systems become simpler, and thus easier to control. But simpler systems are more fragile, and thus more vulnerable.

We have seen yields go up, and the nutrient density of our food go steadily down, leaving our population hungry and overfed at the same time. There are many organic advocates who believe that truly healthy food can only be grown in truly healthy soil. They believe that it’s not possible to grow food with optimal nutrition in a system that carelessly ignores the soil.

And of course, there are some small-scale hydro growers working today who believe in what they do, and believe that they deserve organic certification, even if we don’t see eye to eye on the importance of soil in growing healthy food. But I believe the real reason for the decision under consideration at the NOSB meeting has more to do with the big money to be had in organic, driven by megacorporations like Driscoll’s.

Driscoll’s is the world’s largest distributor of berries, with sales upward of $2 billion per year, making it the quiet elephant in the room in any conversation about organic standards. The company is a core member of the Organic Trade Association, which is lobbying in favor of the NOSB change to include hydroponics under organic certification. And though Driscoll’s disputes that they run large hydroponic operations, Driscoll’s stands to benefit by pulling the USDA Organic standards out of the soil.

Organic farming has clearly become profitable enough in the marketplace to attract corporate attention. And it is easy to be hypnotized by money—that is the power of radical capitalism, where so much money is concentrated in so few hands.

But the question we are facing today is whether we will permit corporate interests to twist “certified organic” to serve them, or will we stand up and say, “No!” For the organic movement, the barbarians are at the gate. In fact, they have already entered the castle.

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  1. Patricia Nolde
    Wednesday, November 1st, 2017
    Left out of this op-ed is any mention of transparency for the consumer. If the consumer things they are supporting soil-based organic with their grocery money, they are not expecting produce grown hydroponically.
  2. Glenn Ford
    Wednesday, November 1st, 2017
    I am not a believer that you should be able to define an industry that needs to advance to meet future needs. While I am not a proponent of chemical use, Aquaponics should be allowed and you are wrong to stop the progress. People who want organic do so because we do not want pesticides, not because we are in love with dirt (soil)

    People are not barbarians because agriculture can use updating
  3. Cathie Gelman
    Friday, November 3rd, 2017
    If the National Organic Program agrees to include hydroponic/aeroponic/aquaponic crops under the USDA organic label then producers of organic produce grown in soil will have to add a line to their labeling which states "grown in SOIL". Watchdog groups can get the word out and educate consumers as to the benefits of buying "grown in soil" products. Once consumers have a choice, then choice will drive the market. But The time is now to alert consumers--in that way customers can be alert to their choices and not caught unaware.
  4. Krista S
    Wednesday, November 8th, 2017
    What are the differences in nutrition profile between fruits/vegetables grown in a soil-less medium and those grown in high-quality organic soil? It would make sense that aeroponically and hydroponically grown vegetables which are fertilized with synthetic NPK solution would lack the micronutrients found in healthy soil. Has research been conducted looking at this?
  5. Sunday, December 24th, 2017
    I am not an expert when it comes to soil. But I am an expert when it comes to eating. I like to eat delicious, nutritious food. If I have the choice between eating a hydroponically grown salad and one that the lettuce was grown in 'dirty' soil, I take the former.

    If certified organic is going to become a vehicle for profit by BigFarma, then I go with not being certified organic if the food is still healthy. Once again, Madison Avenue is gearing up for profit using the term organic and rendering it meaningless to consumers who care about what they eat.