What’s the definition of organic? That may depend upon whom you ask.

If you ask consumers, they are pretty clear. To them, the expectation is food that’s chemical free, healthy and nutritious and environmentally friendly. That view is consistent across numerous consumer surveys, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture who enforces organic standards.

If you ask some current organic farmers, however, you’ll find them trying to redefine the term. They’ll tell you that the soil itself is the key to everything organic, … which means they don’t want produce from indoor hydroponic agriculture to be certified as organic.

Indeed, a handful of organic growers on the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) – a group that advises USDA on organic standards – have proposed that produce from hydroponic agriculture and indoor farming cannot be considered organic. They will be trying to formalize that proposal later this month at the NOSB meeting in Florida.

Consumers, however, don’t share this fixation about dirt. Ironically, the NOSB used to feel that way too. Consider for a moment, the NOSB’s recommendations regarding hydroponic farming from 1995 and 2010:

  • 1995: “Hydroponic production in soilless media to be labeled organically produced shall be allowed if all provisions of the (Organic Food Production Act) have been met.”
  • 2010: “Growing media shall contain sufficient organic matter capable of supporting natural and diverse soil ecology. For this reason, hydroponic and aeroponic systems are prohibited.”

What’s changed? Well, organic sales have become the fastest growing market segment in food. Second, hydroponic farming technologies have developed to the point where they became a real option for profitable local farming, and the ability to supply this new demand for organic products.

Aside from their latest proposal, NOSB states the intent of the organic regulations is: 

  • to be able to grow foods in a way that provides the least harm to the earth’s soil, water, and biological communities in the soil;
  • for production systems to integrate cultural, biological, and mechanical practices that foster cycling of resources, promote ecological balance, and conserve biodiversity; 
  • to grow foods that are chemical-free and healthy.

Hydroponic and aeroponic farming covers all those bases.

In fact, let’s compare systems. Indoor hydroponic agriculture can grow food with zero pesticides and herbicides, while traditional dirt farm organic production still uses some variants of those inputs. Hydroponic farming doesn’t harm the earth’s soil at all because we are not using any soil. Hydroponics are not contributing to chemical runoff like organic field farming. Finally, hydroponics is very efficient in its water use, it uses 98 percent less water and helps conserve natural resources by circulating what few resources we do use throughout our systems.

By the definitions of the NOSB, hydroponic produce absolutely can qualify for organic labeling, if all the other provisions of the Organic Food Production Act are met. The NOSB recognized that back in 1995. Now, however, the Board, is trying to do a complete U-turn in policy and overregulate the sector.

How much of a regulatory overreach has been proposed by the NOSB? By their latest definition change, neither the ancient Hanging Gardens of Babylon nor the floating gardens of the Aztecs on Lake Tenochtitlan could be considered organic.  Who would have guessed that hydroponic practices that date back to 600 BC would be considered too much high tech for the NOSB?

To be sure, there is nothing fundamentally different about the rhizosphere in soil or in hydroponic environments. Roots of hydroponic plants are impacted by temperature, microbial populations, pathogens, salinity, toxics, and nutrients.  Farms that raise plants in the soil control microbiome with inputs of “soil amendments.” The biggest difference is that plants grown in hydroponic systems do not have to expend the same amount of energy to grow longer root systems to seek out water and nutrients.   

The bottom line is that indoor hydroponic agriculture is good for the environment. It’s good for consumers. And it’s good for farmers.

 

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