Photograph by George Steinmetz, Nat Geo Image Collection
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Hydroponic operations that use techniques like this lettuce farm west of Tokyo say they should be allowed to be certified by the U.S. as organic because they help preserve the growing environment, if not necessarily the soil.

Photograph by George Steinmetz, Nat Geo Image Collection
The Plate

Slinging Mud Over the Organic Label

Soil-based farmers say hydroponic growers should not be certified as organic because they don't use dirt.

Two dozen tractors rolled into East Thetford, Vermont, last month, carrying angry farmers, riled up about “freeloaders,” corporate influence, and what they see as an insidious threat to their livelihoods.

That’s because for decades, farmers have grown fruits and vegetables organically, relying on methods that replenish the soil. Thousands of them have gone through the rigorous process of earning the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s organic seal—a process they believe involves growing produce in healthy, biologically active dirt. To them, soil is a living thing requiring special care—an almost spiritual matter.

But in recent years, they say, the value of that process has eroded as produce grown through "soilless" farming, including hydroponics, has earned the organic label.

This week, they're hoping to settle a long-lingering question: Does organic farming, by definition, require soil?

“All these organisms, like earthworms, were created as part of a synergy of God’s creation,” says Mark Kastel, who leads the Cornucopia Institute, a group that has pushed for more restrictive organic standards and has called on the Agriculture Department to exclude hydroponics from organic certification. “Those nutrients in the soil produce nutrient-dense food for us.”

In the past several years, as demand for organic food has shot up, more farmers have started growing produce in water or in some other media, such as coconut shells or peat. But that soilless produce, some organic growers believe, shouldn’t earn the organic seal because it violates the very essence of organic agriculture: healthy soil.

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Organic food sales hit a record $43 billion last year, amounting to about 5 percent of all the food sold in the U.S. The category continues to grow, making it attractive to soilless growers who use water-based systems like this hydroponic lettuce farm in Loudon County, Virginia.

“These farmers want to pretend they’re us, and they’re not us,” says David Chapman, an organic tomato farmer who helped organize the pro-soil tractor rally. Chapman launched a group dubbed Keep The Soil In Organic because he says the soil-free contingent is “purposefully misleading consumers.”

On Friday, the 15-member National Organic Standards Board, which advises the Agriculture Department on its organic program, is scheduled to consider whether hydroponic, aquaponic or “container grown” produce can earn the organic seal, potentially ending a heated debate in the organic community and providing clarity for consumers.

“This is really about the principle of organic growing,” Chapman says.

Exactly, say hydroponic farmers and the group that represents thousands of them.

Marianne Cufone, executive director of the Recirculating Farms Coalition, argues that “soil” has many meanings. “This hinges on your definition of soil. Some take it to mean earth or dirt. Some take it to mean the biological process that happens and creates the means for feeding plants,” says “You still feed the plants, not the soil. You’re providing nutrients to a system that has biologic processes in it. It’s pretty much the same thing. It’s just a different medium.”

At the heart of the debate is the Organic Foods Production Act, the 1990 law that launched the USDA’s organic program. Pro-soil organic growers say farmers who apply for organic certification under the law have to submit an “organic systems plan,” which requires farmers to “foster soil fertility.”

“The law says soils," Cufone explains. "'But it doesn't require soils."

In the U.S., organic sales have soared over the last decade, to a record $43 billion last year, amounting to about 5 percent of all the food sold in the country. Pro-soil growers say that the demand is luring conventional hydroponic growers into the organic market, where they fetch higher prices. In at least two dozen countries, including Mexico, the U.S.’s biggest agricultural trading partner, hydroponically grown produce is not allowed to carry an organic claim. But here, regulators have looked the other way as the industry has grown in size and carries more political heft, the pro-soil camp says.

In 2010, the organic board issued a set of recommendations, which the pro-soil organic growers say “unequivocally state that hydroponic production not be permitted in organic certification.” Yet since 2010, more hydroponic growers have gotten into the organic market, ramping up the debate.

Last year, to address the conflict, the Agriculture Department formed a task force, asking it to deliver a report. But the report, released in July, isn’t clear about what practices should be allowed.

The pro-soil camp complained that the task force was comprised mostly of hydroponic growers, continuing a pro-industry bias that has allowed hydroponics to balloon.

“If you go into the grocery store now and you see a perfect tomato on the vine, or a beautiful pepper, they’re almost all hydroponic,” says Kastel of the Cornucopia Institute. “It’s really an industrialized process. They’re in giant greenhouses, under tens of acres of glass. It’s not bad necessarily, but it’s not farming.”

Ultimately, Kastel says, consumers expect organic produce to come from a soil-based farm.

But hydroponic proponents say consumers who buy organic often do so because they’re concerned about sustainability and conserving resources. Hydroponic operations, for example, can use 80 to 90 percent less water than soil-based operations.

“Today that’s extremely important,” Cufone says. “It’s somewhat questionable that folks who purport to be champions of sustainability wouldn’t want other sustainable farmers, like hydroponics or aquaponics, to achieve the USDA organic label.”

The Organic Trade Association, which represents the bulk of the country’s organic producers, says the task force failed to demonstrate whether hydroponic practices align with organic laws. The group says it’s asking that the organic board get more information before deciding on the matter.

Meanwhile, hydroponic growers say, they’ll push for continued inclusion in the organic program. “We’re not saying that hydroponic and aquaponic are all organic,” Cufone says. “We’re just saying they should have the opportunity to get the label. I think most consumers don’t have a problem with hydroponic. We want that word organic in there. That’s the whole point,” Cufone explains.