Organic without Soil?

We aren’t certified organic by the USDA and I don’t expect we ever will be. In some sense we don’t really have a dog in the fight over what is “organic” and what isn’t. The government has already denied us the ability to use that word, regardless of our practices.

But for the sake of those who have to rely on that certification for some of their purchases (including us), I’d prefer to see the word “organic” retain as much of its integrity as possible.

Currently much of the commercially available “organic” produce is being grown hydroponically–in a nutrient-infused solution, rather than in soil. There is controversy about this. You can read about it in the article I cut and pasted below.

We have neighbors who have made a successful small business from their hydroponic lettuce operation. They’re hardworking farmers and I happy they’ve been successful. They aren’t certified organic and far from hiding their practices, they use it as a sales point. Above their booth is a large banner that reads “Grown in Water, Not in Dirt.” I’ll admit that bugs me a little, as it suggests there is something “dirty” about food grown in soil and something superior about food that isn’t. But that is something the market can decide. Selling hydroponically-grown produce as “organic” is something I’m less comfortable with.

Consider this, from Pam Dawling’s blog, and keep it in mind when shopping, if growing in soil is important to you:

Did you know that nearly all the supermarket “organic” tomatoes are not grown in soil drawing the nutrients they need from the complex array in the soil, but in an inert material (rockwool, coir or plastic pipes with holes in), receiving as nutrients only what the growers provide in a solution that passes by the roots?

Did you know that your understanding of “organic” might be different from USDA’s? Driscoll’s Berries has over a thousand acres of “organic” hydroponic production in hoophouses in California and Mexico. They are the biggest hydroponic “organic” producer in the world.

Did you know that hydroponics is large-scale? Melody Meyers of UNFI testified at the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) that her company’s hydroponic “organic” sales exceeded $50,000,000. (Wholesale value – double it to get the retail value.)

Dave Chapman said

One of the challenges of the USDA takeover of organic certification has been the loss of involvement on the part of the organic farmers. As we have all struggled to make a living in a tough arena, it has been easy to give into a sense of helplessness around maintaining strong standards. At the same time that organic farmers have retreated from the process, the USDA has been profoundly influenced by large corporate farming interests.

Three quarters of US hydroponics sales go to only three or four farms – this is a huge concentration of money, power, and influence in a very few hands. And the industry is engaging in heavy lobbying, not just at NOSB, but throughout the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA).

How did this happen? How did “organic farming” change so drastically in six years? My report is based on Dave Chapman’s in his blog Keep the Soil in Organic.

In 2010, the NOSB recommended saying no to hydroponics receiving Organic Certification by a 14:1 vote, in keeping with international standards, the federal law (the Organic Foods Production Act, OFPA) that created the National Organic Program (NOP), and the traditional practices of organic farmers.

At the NOSB meeting in fall 2016, despite hydroponics industry lobbying, there was not enough support to vote to overturn the 2010 recommendation and allow hydroponics, aquaponics and bioponics. (This would have needed a 2/3 majority). Also, the proposal (from the Crops Subcommittee) that would have eliminated hydroponics in organic was sent back for reconsideration. The stalemate means that the NOP will continue to certify “organic” hydroponic operations.

Dave Chapman reported that

Food Democracy Now! presented a petition with over 12,000 signatures to reject hydroponics. Cornucopia Institute presented 1400 proxy letters from farmers and eaters demanding that soil stewardship be a requirement for organic certification. Clearly, the people numbers were on the side of the soil.

National Organic Program (NOP)  director Miles McEvoy stated at the meeting that even if the recommendation allowing hydroponics was defeated, it would not affect NOP policy. The NOP continues to support certifying hydroponics as USDA Organic even though the OFPA law requires Organic farming be based on maintaining and improving soil fertility. The NOP support of hydroponics is also in direct opposition to the 2010 NOSB recommendation, as well as standards in most other countries. Across the world, hydroponic operations are being USDA Organic certified.

A resolution  passed 12 to 0 reading, “It is the consensus of the NOSB to prohibit hydroponic systems that have an entirely water-based substrate.” (This refers to “plastic pipe” hydroponics as opposed to rockwool and coir which are imagined to provide something more than physical support.) This resolution does show consensus in rejecting the idea that hydroponic growing can become organic simply by “adding biology” to plain water, and provides a small glimmer of sanity and common sense. NOSB refused to acknowledge that actual hydroponic farming is not limited to plants that grow in water, but includes those propped up by rockwool and coir. The current hydroponics industry move is to avoid the “H word” and talk about “containerized ” plants – ones held in a small amount of material, but still being fertilized by solutions flowing by.

What makes a system hydroponic is how the fertility is delivered to the plant, not the material that the roots sit in. In a hydroponic system, the fertility is supplied to the plant in the irrigation water. There are so-called “organic” fertilizers that are extremely processed organic materials. For example, the 16-0-0 hydrolyzed soy protein being used in hydroponics acts like a synthetic nitrogen fertilizer. It has little similarity to unprocessed soy meal. In a genuinely organic system, the fertility results from the  complex soil food web interacting with organic materials we growers supply.

The companies speaking in support of hydroponics to the NOSB include Miracle Gro (chemical fertilizer company), Nature Gro (major supplier of substrates for conventional growers), the Organic Trade Association (lobbyists for the big hydroponic “organic” growers), Nature Sweet tomatoes (1400 acres of conventional greenhouses), Houweling’s Tomatoes (250 acres of conventional greenhouse tomatoes), and Driscoll’s (already mentioned).

These companies all want  to get in on the “Organic” market without doing the honest hard work. The food industry spends more money lobbying Capitol Hill each year than the defense industry does!

Know your farmer! Buy local, from trusted growers. Do what you can to speak up for real food, grown in the soil.

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29 comments on “Organic without Soil?

  1. NebraskaDave says:

    Bill, the word organic has been tossed around and made to have so many rules and regulations that it’s difficult for me to really know exactly what the word means. It’s become a word for big growers to ask for more money in retail sales. Folks have become accustomed to the blemish free vegetables and that can be attained in a totally controlled environment. Science has indeed provided every thing necessary to grow edible vegetables and fruits. Technology has invaded the world of food just like every other aspect of society. Today growers can produce food perfect in every way except for flavor. To me, there’s no competition for the flavor of things grown in well taken care of garden soil even if there are a few lumps, bumps, a spots.

    I talked to a friend of mine who said, “In today’s world there is no such thing as organic.” He claims the air is polluted; the soil has unwanted chemicals; and the water is contaminated. To some degree, I’d have to agree with him. It would be difficult to find those three elements totally pristine.

    Have a great Wednesday on White Flint Farm.
    .

    Liked by 1 person

    • Bill says:

      I know there are plenty of conscientious principled certified-organic farmers. But I also know that most of the certified organic food in stores comes from mega-corporations whose practices are only marginally better than conventional practices. And they’re not farming organically on principle, but rather just to capture “market share.” Pam’s advice would be mine too. If you can’t grow it yourself, “Know your farmer! Buy local, from trusted growers.”

      Like

  2. shoreacres says:

    Well. So much for my assumptions about Driscoll: particularly, their organic strawberries. Honestly, I’m just so tired of political spin, slanted news reporting, and misleading advertising. When “transparency” became a word, my first response was that they didn’t want to tell the truth. Now that “fake news” is all the rage, I’m in the same position, believing that it’s nothing more than a euphemism for gossip or lies. Now “organic” may not be organic? Oh, shoot.

    There’s not much I can do about all this, except try to be informed, and buy local. It seems that “organic” is being used in the same way “cage-free” has been: as a way to market goods that will entice buyers. Driscoll has gotten me with their strawberries and other berries in the past. No more.

    I’m going to check with my farmers about their growing methods, too. They have to be organic, or they wouldn’t be at the market. But I believe I remember them saying they grow in hoop houses, and they have tomatoes all year. If I understand what you quoted, they could be using hydroponic methods and still be certified as organic. Yes? If that’s true, and that’s what they’re doing, buying from them wouldn’t be any different from buying “organic” tomatoes from Nature Sweet. Oh, double shoot.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Bill says:

      As Pam said in her post, whenever possible know the farmer and buy from trusted local growers. Of course that’s not always possible and that’s why the integrity of certifications is important.

      I would recommend that you do check with your farmers about their methods. Farmers who are enthusiastic and proud of their practices enjoy the opportunity to talk about them.

      I was surprised to see how much “organic” produce is grown hydroponically, and especially surprised to see that industrial organic strawberries and tomatoes are grown that way. Under current rules it is permissible to grow hydroponically and still be certified organic. All they have to do it use “organic” fertilizer in the water/solution.

      Strawberries are a tough case. Difficult to grow organically on a large scale. Just keep in mind that even hydroponically grown strawbs are going to be safer to eat than conventional.

      Like

      • shoreacres says:

        Just for grins, I went over to the local farm that has strawberries — YES! They’re open for picking the rest of this week. The crop is starting to come in. I always forget how early they ripen here.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Just another reason why I try to grow my own .

    Liked by 2 people

    • Bill says:

      And there are so many reasons. I just feel bad for people who can’t grow there are own, are trying to do the right thing, and are being misled. I don’t think calling hydroponically grown produce “organic” is nearly as bad as calling factory-raised chickens “cage free” (to use the example Linda mentioned in her comment), but it is still probably misleading many people.

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  4. And the battle goes on— and on. –Curt

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Allison Mohr says:

    Thank you for this. After learning about the horrid practices for growing strawberries in the dirt in California (injecting the ground with fungicides), we wondered how Driscoll was growing them organically. it did not occur to me that they’re hydroponic. The whole thing of food being an industry is just depressing.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Bill says:

      I’d never really thought about it until I read Pam Dawling’s post, but looking at it now I’m not surprised. It’s very difficult to grow strawberries organically (in soil), and strawberries are a very profitable crop. It’s not surprising that a company would grow them hydroponically to avoid chemical soil treatments and then sell them as organic (which I suppose they technically are, if organic doesn’t require soil).

      Liked by 1 person

  6. I too have wondered about those organic strawberries, even though I’ve paid the extra for them on occasion. Sigh… Still it’s good to know.
    The more thing change, the more they are the same….

    Liked by 1 person

    • Bill says:

      I don’t recall knowing about Driscoll’s way of growing them, but I just mentioned it to my wife and she says that in one of the slideshows we use in our talks we have a picture of a Driscoll’s strawberry operation.

      Like

  7. We usually eat our own stuff, but do on occasion buy the organic Compari tomatoes as a treat in the winter. More and more I believe that MY standards are the only ones I trust. I recently found one of our “organic” neighbors spraying with Roundup. Please. That is NOT organic.
    If I can’t eat it out of the package, I’m not putting it on my crops. And since NONE of the sprays, etc I’ve seen that are organic-grower approved can be drunk out of bottle, I’m not putting them on either. It’s plain old compost and donkey doo and nothing else here. Guess I’ll be giving up those “treat” tomatoes……………………….

    Liked by 1 person

    • Bill says:

      I’m with you on that Susan. We don’t use ANY pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, etc., regardless of whether they’re approved as “organic.”

      I recall reading that in response to a Monsanto rep claiming Roundup was not harmful to humans someone handed him a glass of it and dared him to prove his claim by drinking it. He declined to do so of course.

      Like

  8. ain't for city gals says:

    remember the post you did about ‘I can ruin that food for you’ ? thanks bill…ha! Who knew…I hardly by anything from store anymore and trying to grow as much as possible.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Bill says:

      You made me laugh. I’m sorry (sorta) but it’s true. In the real world I’ve learned to just stay quiet unless asked–in the hopes of not being “that jerk who ruins all the foods we like.” 🙂

      Like

  9. Rusdy says:

    Your quote above from David Chapman got me thinking about this organic saga. So, the fight is not really for the ‘quality’ of the food so much, but more for the farmers. Like your quote of “Know your farmer! Buy local, from trusted growers.”

    So, it’s a fight for distributed economic system, not a centralised one (by large corporation that tend to hog the profit to a very small number of individuals).

    Or am I thinking too much?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Bill says:

      No, it’s an excellent question.

      The motives of people who choose organic food vary. For some health is the primary consideration. For others it’s taste. Some are mostly concerned about the environmental degradation caused by conventional agriculture. Some are motivated by a concern for animal welfare (in the case of meat and eggs). I would say that most people have a combination of those motives (and possibly others).

      Because organic food doesn’t have to be locally grown (in fact, usually isn’t), a person who buys industrial organic food isn’t really helping in the effort to keep economies decentralized and to favor local farmers over multi-national corporations. But that is often an important motivation for people who choose locally-grown food.

      Many people, like us, are concerned about all those things, so they try to buy food that is both locally-grown and organic (whether certified or not).

      Like

      • Rusdy says:

        Hmmm… I guess living in a fallen world does make it difficult to do the right thing. To eat produce that is democratic (i.e. not produced by large corporation that hog profits for a small number of individual), sustainable, and low cost at the same time is close to impossible.

        Like

  10. Allison Mohr says:

    I was pointed to this blog post. It’s a lot of words, and I’m still working on it. You might find it interesting. It’s about the Central Valley in California.

    http://coyot.es/crossing/2016/11/04/the-central-valleys-second-coming/

    Liked by 2 people

    • Bill says:

      Wow. Thanks for sharing that. I didn’t realize how much damage had been to the ecosystem there. A shockingly high percentage of the produce grown in the US comes from that valley, and that is unsustainable. And as for all those (expletive deleted) almond trees…that just seems criminal to me.

      Like

  11. avwalters says:

    It depends upon one’s reason for preferring “organic.” In the “old days,” back in the early eighties, we fought to define “organic” as produce and products arising out of sustainable practices for the health of the consumers AND the planet. The mantra, “Feed the soil, not the plant,” makes it absolutely clear that hydroponics could not fall under the organic classification. Fed on chemicals? Absolutely not. Like many things, once it becomes a matter of money, the soul is drained from the equation. Know your farmer (or grow your own.)

    Liked by 1 person

    • Bill says:

      Yep. Well said. It’s probably inevitable that once there are a set of regulations defining “organic” (and provided there is a potential profit to be made) then big businesses will find ways to game the system by exploiting the loopholes.

      Liked by 1 person

  12. Zambian Lady says:

    Really? Well, I am very surprised about that as I didn’t know that. I have a friend who has always refused to buy ‘organic’, especially from big supermarkets, unless she wants that particular item, because she thinks the word is used very loosely. Now I believe her! Too bad I don’t live near my parents who have an organic field (though they don’t use that term, of course) for their own consumption and a larger one for commercial purposes. According to them, the food from the subsistence field tastes as good as it did when they were young while the commercial one my be very big and healthy looking, but the taste is not as good.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Bill says:

      Unfortunately we’re forced to dig a little deeper than just a word on the packaging. And it isn’t always possible to do that. The best solution is to grow ones own food. The next best solution is to buy food from farmers you know and trust. When those two options are available, all we can do is research as best we can and take our chances.

      Liked by 1 person

  13. Late to the party here, but ding dang it! This is disheartening… I hate to say it but now that you mention it, it is not surprising that the large corporations have hijacked “organic” in such a short period of time. I naïvely thought when I first started to see organic products in the supermarket about five years ago that the industry was waking up to the reality that they were ruining our soils, health, etc but also realizing it was the higher prices they could charge that motivated them most. I hoped for the best but as usual with big business – the almighty dollar is still king.
    I’ve yet to be attracted to hydroponics – it just never felt right. I grow a mix of grains and legumes in shallow containers for my chickens so they have access to fresh greens when they aren’t available to them. I got the idea years ago when I saw FarmTek’s hydroponic fodder systems, but I have always used soil to grow them because I feel that there are important nutrients the chickens need in there.
    Thanks for yet another wake up call Bill

    Liked by 1 person

    • Bill says:

      I have a friend who is in the crop insurance business. His customers are all industrial ag operations. He told me that he has some who are “organic” (including organic tobacco farms–imagine that). He says NONE of his organic customers are farming organically on principle. In every case they’re doing it because they expect to make more money that way. So yeah, I think you’re right. There’s no reason to expect the big boys to do anything but chase the money. That’s why we always advise buying locally over buying industrial organic.

      Like

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