“We are in a final battle for the soul of the organic label.” - Dave Chapman of Long Wind Farm for the “Keep the Soil in Organic” campaign
Should vegetables grown in water, instead of soil, be certified organic?
Big Ag companies, such as Wholesum Harvest and Driscoll’s, say yes. They’re pushing the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) National Organic Program (NOP) to let them put the USDA Organic seal on hydroponically grown produce, including tomatoes, cucumbers, squash, peppers and berries.
OCA and other consumer watchdogs say no. Why? Because under USDA organic standards, farmers are required to increase soil organic matter.
Here’s another reason: USDA organic standards shouldn’t be re-written to benefit companies like Scotts Miracle-Gro. Scotts—the exclusive distributor of Monsanto’s Roundup herbicide—is one of the biggest suppliers of the nutrients, growth mediums, containers, irrigation systems and lighting required for soilless crop production.
TAKE ACTION! Keep the Soil in Organic! Please sign our petition and add your own comments. If you can, rally with us outside the NOSB meeting in Jacksonville, Fla., on October 31.
Soil Is the Soul of Organic
Organic agriculture is often defined by what it isn’t—non-GMO (genetically modified organism), and synthetic pesticide- and chemical fertilizer-free.
But that’s only half the story.
Organic is called “organic” because organic farmers work to increase soil organic matter. Soil organic matter enhances the soil's ability to store carbon, cycle nutrients, and absorb water. Crops are more productive, nutritious and resilient under stresses such as drought and flooding when they grow in soil that is rich in organic matter.
Increasingly, we are coming to understand that soil rich in organic matter is the key to healthy people as well as healthy soil. This is the fascinating topic of the recent books “The Hidden Half of Nature,” by Anne Biklé and David R. Montgomery and “The Dirt Cure,” by Maya Shetreat-Klein. Diverse microorganisms nourished by plant roots in living soil can provide multiple human health benefits, from acting as antidepressants to improving digestion.
Soil organic matter is also the key to a healthy planet. As we know from the devastating floods, droughts, storms and wildfires that are wreaking havoc across the globe, the planet has passed the dangerous tipping point of 350 pm (parts per million) carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.
We need to reduce CO2 emissions. But as Will Allen from Regeneration Vermont explains, weaning the world off fossil fuels will only plug the leak—we’ve also got to do something to bail out the boat.
The only way to stabilize the climate is to draw down more than 50 ppm of excess CO2 from the atmosphere. The only safe and reliable way to accomplish this massive drawdown is through photosynthesis, the process plants use to convert carbon dioxide in the atmosphere to carbon in soil organic matter. (You can learn more about this at our Regeneration International website. If you’re ready to act, join 4p1000, the global initiative to increase carbon sequestration in soils for food security and climate.)
If organic is about reaping the multiple benefits of soil organic matter, from increased crop resilience to better human health to the potential to reverse climate change, then by definition, soilless crop production methods like hydroponics are not organic.
But there’s another reason hydroponics and other soilless crop production methods don’t belong in organics—they have a massive carbon footprint.
Indoor, vertical farming is energy intensive. One study found that hydroponically grown lettuce required 82 times more energy compared with conventionally produced lettuce. That’s because instead of relying on the sun’s power, these methods use electricity generated from fossil fuels.
Soilless producers even burn natural gas for the carbon dioxide their plants would get from the air if they were grown outdoors! As Washington Post food columnist Tamar Haspel puts it, “Indoor lettuce is a carbon Sasquatch.”
If energy-intensive soilless indoor vegetable production can be certified organic, what’s next? “Organic” lab-grown meat?
There’s More Than One Way to Grow Food in the Desert
Those in favor of soilless crop production claim it’s the only way to grow greens in a desert. That’s why they’ve invested heavily in ways to reduce the carbon footprint of soilless systems that can convert sunlight, seawater and “sustainably sourced” carbon dioxide and nutrients into artificial indoor environments for growing vegetables.
But it turns out to be a very expensive way to grow vegetables. Sundrop Farms spent $200 million to construct a facility that can produce 180,000 tomato plants, and that doesn’t include operating costs. It might be technically possible to grow vegetables without soil with a smaller carbon footprint, but it seems to be a solution for the richest 1 percent rather than a good way to feed the world.
There are other, much cheaper—really costless by comparison—ways to produce food in the desert, and regenerate vast landscapes, with low-tech methods that anyone can learn and use. A quick search for videos on “greening the desert” will produce scores of astounding case studies, including John D. Liu’s 2009 documentary “Hope in a Changing Climate,” Allan Savory’s TED talk, “How to Green the World’s Deserts and Reverse Climate Change,” and the VPRO documentary, “Regreening the Planet.”
In her book, “The Soil Will Save Us,” Kristin Ohlson describes a simple method, developed by New Mexico State University soil scientist David C. Johnson, for quickly regenerating soil. Anyone can replicate the impressive yields Johnson has produced on restored desert soils, as he explains in this video. What Johnson calls his Biologically Enhanced Agricultural Method destroys the fertilizer industry’s claim that there isn’t enough organic matter on the planet to farm organically. Not only does Johnson’s system not use pesticides or fertilizers, it doesn’t even need mulch! Photosynthesis and microbiology do all the work.
Don’t Let Big Business Steal Organic’s Soul!
The Organic Consumers Association has fought big business’s attempts to wreck organic since our founding nearly 20 years now. Along the way, we’ve allied with the hardworking organic farmers who do the right thing: provide consumers with safe and nutritious food, treat workers with dignity, raise animals humanely and responsibly steward the land that sustains us all.
USDA Organic is still the best stuff you can find in the grocery store, but it hasn’t reached its true potential—and it’s under attack by big corporations.
When the biggest multinational food companies started buying up small organic brands, it looked like organic might transform the conventional food industry. As it turns out, the biggest organic brands have been stingy with U.S. farmers. They demand more and pay less. They keep standards low and competition dirty. They scour the globe for cheap ingredients and chase U.S. farmers into bankruptcy and off their land.
Organic regulators haven’t (or won’t) keep up with the rapid industrialization and globalization of organic supply chains. Certified organic is still the best choice in most product categories. But unfortunately, organic integrity has suffered from a lack of enforcement that’s opened the door to loopholes for synthetic ingredients in organic products, organic farms that confine animals indoors or in feedlots, a deluge of fraudulent organic imports and the refusal to regulate fake organic non-food products.
The push for soilless organic is just another way for big business to further industrialize organic and marginalize the family farmers who use traditional organic farming techniques.
Unlike David Johnson’s method where all you need is a parcel of poor land, a small pile of organic matter, a simple compost bin and some seeds to be very productive, breaking into the market for hydroponic organic vegetables will be impossible for all but the wealthiest investors. This will lock in the biggest players and allow them to determine the future of organic vegetable production.
Read "The Problem with Organic Hydroponics."
TAKE ACTION! Keep the Soil in Organic! Please sign our petition and add your own comments. If you can, come to one of the upcoming Rallies in Many Valleys. The big one will be outside the NOSB meeting in Jacksonville, FL on October 31.