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Keeping organics meaningful

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This article comes from the NOFA/Massachusetts 2015 May Issue Newsletter

Jack Kittredge, NOFA/Mass Policy Director

As you no doubt have heard, organic food is continuing to enjoy a spectacular growth in the American marketplace. It went up over 11% last year and now accounts for more than 5% of the US food market. Organic products have been called the “fastest-growing” consumer food trend in modern history.

As you have also no doubt heard, this market growth is both the cause, and also the product, of major food companies like Kellogg, General Mills, Campbell Soup, Coca-Cola, Pepsi, Nestle, Smucker’s, M&M, Cargill, Dean, Danone, Post, ConAgra, and Hershey getting into the organic business.

One can debate whether this is good, bad, or both for the organic movement as most of us have known it. There is no question, however, that their increased muscle is having an impact on what has, heretofore, been seen as the “integrity” of the organic brand. More and more the goal of the USDA and its creature the National Organic Program (NOP) seems to be to increase the growth of the organic label and its penetration into our food supply, even at the risk of undercutting the strict standards for which that label is supposed to stand.

A case in point is hydroponics, or the growing of plants such as tomatoes or lettuce in water, their roots anchored by some sort of impervious substrate such as rock wool. Nutrients are delivered in a water-soluble form directly to the plant roots in a precisely controlled fashion. If the nutrients used are in a form that would be allowed in organic agriculture, is there any reason hydroponics itself should be prohibited?

Yes, say many organic advocates. It does not involve soil.

The original USDA definition of organic acknowledged the key role soil and the wealth of life it contains play in mediating plant growth. It stressed “soil biological activity” as key to organic production. The National Organic Standards Board, in their recommendation rejecting hydroponic farming, wrote:

“The abundance of organisms in healthy, organically maintained soils form a biological network, an amazing and diverse ecology that is ‘the secret’, the foundation of the success of organic farming accomplished without the need for synthetic insecticides, nematicides, fumigants, etc.”

Yet the final USDA definition of organic, written in 2002, removed any reference to the word “soil”. And now NOP director Miles McEvoy has allowed hydroponic food to be sold as organic and many accredited certifiers have begun certifying hydroponic operations.

The industrial nature of this kind of production, in sealed buildings with LED lights and nutrient pumps replacing sun, rain and soil, has attracted investors interested in “scaling up” this kind of farming. It has also begun to put soil-based growers out of business. 

Protests from organic growers around the country have merely resulting in the NOP calling for a “task force” to study “emerging technologies” in hydroponic production and “seek the most current information and opinions of industry experts.” Some observers suggest that the decision has already been made and this task force will simply rubber stamp it. There are organic growers and advocates, however, actively trying to influence the decision of the task force. David Chapman of Vermont’s Long Wind Farm has started a petition at www.keepthesoilinorganic.org for farmers and consumers to sign stating that soil is fundamental to organic growing and must be central to any definition. Let him know what you think!

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