News From the Farm | November 6, 2017

On November 1st, the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) issued a recommendation that crops grown in water rather than in soil (hydroponically), should be eligible for certification as organically grown as long as they followed the other elements of the organic rule — no use of chemical pesticides for example.

Many organic farmers are deeply concerned that Organic Certification is getting watered down(!) because of the increasing power of agribusiness in the organic industry. Note that this struggle for the heart and soul of Organic Agriculture didn’t just start with the hubbub about hydroponics. Some of our readers may remember that when the first draft of the national rule was proposed in 1997, the USDA and DC lobbyists had incorporated GMOs, irradiation and sewage sludge. This issue generated the most comments the USDA had ever received as people nationwide protested the inclusion of the “Big Three,” resulting in their elimination in the Final Rule of 2002.

Some of you may wonder why all the fuss about hydroponics? Sure, it is  usually a pretty high-tech form of indoor farming often practiced by large agribusiness firms, but in fact, it can be fairly efficient in its use of energy and water. Different organic farmers are likely to answer the hydroponics question differently, but to some of us, it comes down to a core belief that growing organic food is about balancing environmental sustainability and biological diversity with economic gain. Taking care of soil, water and native pollinators should rank up there with balance sheet analysis in business meetings. It is hard to imagine that biodiversity and soil microbes are being given the attention they deserve in massive hydroponic operations, even when those businesses are good corporate citizens with honorable intentions. Hydroponics takes place indoors under LED lights, without harnessing sunlight and without the complex biology represented by a good organic soil, providing micronutrients to crops.  

In fact, soil building, resource conservation and biodiversity are a part of the National Organic Program, despite the 11/1 decision on hydroponics that seems to minimize their significance. For example, a Final Guidance published by the NOSB on January 15, 2016, addressed conservation issues, stating that “Certified operations are required to implement measures that support natural resource conservation and biodiversity in addition to maintaining soil or water quality.” According the the Wild Farm Alliance, “The final guidance … includes a detailed set of examples for how an organic operation can maintain or improve soil, water, wetlands, woodlands and wildlife…This is raising the bar to a higher level.” Many organic farmers have long pointed to certified organic confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs) or large monoculture organic farms as places where it is stretching the rules too far to award the Certified Organic seal. 

The 70-year-old organization that certifies organic farmers in the United Kingdom is called the Soil Association. The Association was founded by Lady Eve Balfour, quoted as saying, “The health of soil, plant, animal and man is one and indivisible.” This founding principle of the Soil Association is but one example of many that demonstrate how fundamental is the  study of those complex interactions that make up a healthy living soil to the culture of organic agriculture. The latest inclusion of plants grown in water (hydroponics) as part of organic agriculture has the organic movement very concerned — some farmers, like Francis Thicke, an Iowa dairy farmer who is at the end of his 5-year NOSB term. He said in a letter after the meeting, “In summary, organic is at a crossroads. Either we can continue to allow industry interests to bend and dilute the organic rules to their benefit, or organic farmers—working with organic consumers — can step up and take action to ensure organic integrity into the future.”   

— Judith Redmond