Will Inclusion of Hydroponics Be the Death Knell of Organic Standards?

Story at-a-glance -

  • According to section 7 CFR 205.205 of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) organic regulations, an organic grower’s crop rotation plan must maintain or improve soil organic matter
  • On November 1, the National Organic Standards Board rejected the proposal to ban hydroponics and aquaponics in organic production, even though these growing methods do not involve soil
  • Many organic pioneers are now threatening to opt out of USDA organic certification. If stewardship of nutrient-rich soil is eliminated as a basic requirement of organics, an alternative add-on label may be developed
  • Last year, organic food sales in the U.S. reached a record $47 billion, accounting for 5 percent of total food sales, but as organic standards are being devalued, the need for more biodynamic farming becomes more pressing than ever to ensure food quality and environmental protection
  • Loopholes in the organic program even allow CAFOs to obtain organic certification, even though their operation is anything but animal and environmentally friendly

By Dr. Mercola

Before we discuss the recent tragic news about the organic certification standards, it is important to understand that most hydroponically grown food is vastly inferior to food grown in a healthy soil, where the fungi and microbes can optimize the plant in a way that is simply impossible to do in a hydroponic environment.

You see, the basis of organic food production starts with improving the soil. This has been understood for over a century, when you improve the soil you improve your health and protect the environment from the damages of factory farming.

A couple of months ago I discussed the fight to prevent hydroponically grown produce from being included in organic standards. According to section 7 CFR 205.2051,2 of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's (USDA) organic regulations, an organic grower's crop rotation plan must maintain or improve soil organic matter. Since hydroponics does not involve the use of soil, it stands to reason that it cannot qualify for organic certification.

Despite such seemingly clear-cut rules, a large number of hydroponic operators have still been able to obtain organic certification by USDA accredited certification agencies,3,4,5 and the hydroponics industry has been fighting for organic certification to be open to the industry at large. As noted by Cornucopia Institute, organic hydroponic production was "quietly approved" by Miles McEvoy, former deputy administrator of the USDA's National Organic Program (NOP).6

McEvoy resigned from his post September 10, having held the position for the past eight years. In 2010, the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) had voted "no" on allowing hydroponics as the organic rules clearly did not support their inclusion. McEvoy, who disagreed with the panel's decision, allowed hydroponic growers to apply for certification anyway. On November 1, the NOSB voted on whether these hydroponic growers would be allowed to remain part of the organic program or not.

Standards Board Accepts Hydroponics Into Organics

Many passionate growers and organic consumers have voiced their opinions on the matter. A petition created by Keep the Soil in Organic gathered 86,000 signatures, which were delivered to the NOSB in anticipation of its vote. Unfortunately, the NOSB, which acts as an advisory panel to the USDA on matters relating to organic standards, voted 8-to-7 to reject the proposal to ban hydroponics in organic production.7,8,9

To say it's a major blow to the organic industry would be one of the most serious health understatements of the year. Many organic pioneers are now threatening to opt out of USDA organic certification altogether, and/or to "develop an alternative add-on label if the stewardship of nutrient-rich soil is eliminated as a foundational requirement," Mark Kastel, co-founder and co-director of the Cornucopia Institute said in a recent post.10

Following the NOSB vote, organic tomato farmer Dave Chapman, who has lobbied to get hydroponics out of the organic program, told The Washington Post,11 "This was the Hail Mary pass to save the NOP, and they didn't catch it. They did incalculable damage to the [USDA organic] seal tonight. It's just going to take them a while to realize it."

Labeling Hydroponic Products as Organic Is Illegal

Jim Riddle, steering committee chair of the Organic Farmers Association (OFA),12 who in the early '90s co-wrote OTA's organic standards, had this to say about hydroponics being allowed to be certified organic:

"The labeling of hydroponic products as 'organic' is illegal. The Organic Foods Production Act (OFPA), in section 6513(b)(1), states, 'An organic plan shall contain provisions to foster soil fertility…' Further, OFPA 6513(g) states, 'An organic plan shall not include any production or handling practices that are inconsistent with this chapter.' Soilless production systems are inconsistent with OFPA.

They do not comply with numerous sections of the NOP Final Rule, as enumerated in the Crops Subcommittee's recommendation. There is one relevant rule provision that the Committee overlooked. Section 205.601(j)(6) allows the use of micronutrients, with the following annotation, 'Soil deficiency must be documented by testing.'

This does not mean that micronutrients may be used if soil is deficient from the system. No, it links soil to the allowance for the use of micronutrients. The OFPA and rule sections mentioned above, and in the Committee's recommendation, use the words 'shall' and 'must,' not 'should' or 'may.' These are mandatory provisions, and they cannot be ignored.

In addition, soilless, hydroponic systems do not comply with the NOSB Principles of Organic Production and Handling, the first sentence of which reads, 'Organic agriculture is an ecological production management system that promotes and enhances biodiversity, biological cycles, and soil biological activity.'

Hydroponics Are Taking Over Certified Organics

Considering organic produce demands higher retail prices, the inclusion of hydroponics and aquaponics in organic production is by many seen as a "gift" to industrial powerhouses that are not actually producing food in a way that benefits the environment and the ecosystem as a whole.

Last year, organic food sales in the U.S. reached a record $47 billion,13 accounting for 5 percent of total food sales. But what good does burgeoning organic sales do if more and more growers are barely fulfilling the minimum requirements of organic production? The inclusion of hydroponics and aquaponics is really just part of an ongoing watering-down of organic standards — to the point that the label is becoming unreliable at best and useless at worst.

organic sales growth market analysis
Source: Organic Trade Association Market Analysis

As reported by NPR:14

"The battle is over more than philosophy. It's about market share. Hydroponic methods, deployed on an industrial scale, are taking over an increasing share of sales to supermarkets. [Organic farmer, Dave] Chapman says that most organic tomatoes sold in supermarkets today already are grown without touching the soil.

'What will happen, very quickly, is that virtually all of the certified organic tomatoes in supermarkets will be hydroponic,' Chapman says. 'Virtually all of the peppers and cucumbers [will be hydroponically grown]. A great deal of the lettuce. And most of the berries.'"

The Rise of 'Fauxganics' and Loopholes That Decimate the Organic Standard

The failure to bar hydroponics and aquaponics from organic production is seen as a last straw for many in the organic movement, who have already become disenchanted with the rise of concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) getting organic certification. As noted by Cornucopia:15

"The practice of growing fruits and vegetables in inert mediums that depend on liquid fertilizers, rather than in rich organically managed soil, has been intensely controversial. The USDA has quietly allowed importers and major agribusinesses to skirt the legal requirements for careful soil stewardship and still qualify for use of the organic seal …

'Some NOSB members, with good intentions, have tried to craft a compromise requiring some amount of soil in the containers that giant industrial complexes use to grow hydroponic crops,' said Dr. Linley Dixon, Cornucopia's senior scientist.

'Unfortunately, the current regulations requiring soil are clear, and what is being proposed is unenforceable, ripe for abuse, and will lead to increased imports from European Union countries, and elsewhere, where hydroponics is clearly forbidden to be labeled as organic.'"

Recent history is already rife with examples of abuse as loopholes are being stretched to their absolute limits. As reported in a July article by The Washington Post,16 loopholes in the organic program even allow CAFOs to obtain organic certification, even though their operation is anything but animal and environmentally friendly. Describing the situation at Eggland's Best, an organic egg producer, Peter Whoriskey writes:

"[A]ccording to people familiar with the operation, as well as a building plan, each of the nine long rectangular barns … holds about 180,000 birds, or more than three hens per square foot of floor space … None of the birds is allowed to set foot outside, sources said.

Under USDA requirements, organic livestock are supposed to have access to the 'outdoors,' get 'direct sunlight' and 'fresh air.' The rules prohibit 'continuous total confinement of any animal indoors.' Organic livestock are supposed to be able to engage in their 'natural behavior,' and for chickens, that means foraging on the ground for food, dust-bathing and even short flights.

Katherine Paul of the Organic Consumers Association said the … operation betrays consumer expectations. 'This is not at all what consumers expect of an organic farm … It's damaging to the image of the entire industry. People will wonder, 'Why the hell am I paying more for this?'"

Hydroponic Veggies Are on Par With Conventional Produce

It may be even easier to fool consumers with hydroponics, as many already mistakenly believe that hydroponically grown veggies are on par with organic regardless of the organic label, or at the very least, that they're grown without pesticides and are therefore better for your health and the environment than conventionally grown vegetables. As it turns out, none of these ideas are necessarily true.17,18

Research shows that, nutritionally, hydroponic produce is typically on par with — and frequently lower than — conventionally grown produce. According to one study,19 hydroponically grown vegetables had lower levels of carotenoids such as beta-carotene and lutein than conventional vegetables. Research shows healthy "living" soils make for food with better nutrient content, so the finding that hydroponically grown produce falls short on nutrients is to be expected.

"Live" soils teem with microorganisms such as bacteria, fungi, protozoa and microscopic roundworms called nematodes. It's the synergistic cooperation between these microorganisms, the soil's biome and the plants' roots (rhizosphere) that allows the plant to absorb nutrients from the soil in which it's grown.

As noted in a previous Civil Eats article,20 organic farming, with its emphasis on improving soil quality, is "a 'plant positive' rather than 'pest negative' philosophy, focused on growing vigorous, healthy plants and animals imbued with all their natural powers of resistance." Indeed, this is precisely what the NOSB stressed in its formal 2010 recommendation to the NOP on the issue of organic hydroponics:21

"The organic farming method derives its name from the practice of maintaining or improving the organic matter (carbon containing) content of farm soil through various methods and practices. The reason this is the central theme and foundation of organic farming is not inherent to the organic matter itself, but is based on the importance of the organic matter to the living organisms that inhabit soils …

These microscopic organisms, found in abundance in well maintained soils, interact in a symbiotic manner with plant roots, producing the effect of strengthening the plant to be able to better resist or avoid insect, disease and nematode attack, as well as assisting the plant in water and mineral uptake …

In practice, the organic farmer is … a steward of the soil ecology … Observing the framework of organic farming … it becomes clear that systems of crop production that eliminate soil from the system, such as hydroponics or aeroponics, cannot be considered as examples of acceptable organic farming practices."

Biodynamic Farming — The New Platinum Standard for Real Food

Fast-forward seven years and the NOSB has now changed its tune, siding instead with the powerful hydroponics lobby and reneging on these basic principles of organic farming. With the watering down of organics, it seems clear we need to go beyond organic certification — hence the rise of biodynamic farming and stronger grass fed certification.

Last year, biodynamic farming in the U.S. increased by 16 percent.22 Biodynamic farming is organic plus focuses on regenerative practices for the soil. While an organic farmer can section off as little as 10 percent of the farm for the growing of certified organic goods, to be certified as a biodynamic farmer, your entire farm must be biodynamic.

Biodynamic certification also requires 10 percent of the land be dedicated to increasing biodiversity, such as forest, wetland or insectary. As explained by Elizabeth Candelario, managing director for the global Biodynamic certification agency Demeter, in a recent interview:

"Organic is really about what you don't do. In organic, you don't use synthetic fertilizers or pesticides. You don't use genetically modified organism (GMO) seed. You do everything you can to avoid GMO contamination; no sewer sludge on the farm and no irradiation of products.

What's happening with the burgeoning interest in organic … is there's a lot of pressure on that standard, so you have products coming into the market that do the minimum of what is required, sitting right next to another product that's also labeled organic that does much more.

Biodynamics fundamentally maintains the core principle that the farm is a living organism. We start by saying that the organic standard is the base to the Demeter standard. If a farm is Demeter certified, it means that it's met the organic standard, even if it's not certified organic. But then, the standard is much broader, maintaining that idea of the farm as a closed system. You look for solutions to disease, pest and weed control to come out of the farm system itself."

Biodynamic Farming Is the Way Forward

demeter
In addition to producing food with higher nutrient content, biodynamic farming also addresses and corrects a wide array of environmental problems associated with conventional farming, including:

  • Water scarcity
  • Soil erosion and degradation
  • Water pollution
  • Air pollution
  • Desertification (land turning into desert) and loss of biodiversity

The USDA Organic label simply does not represent regenerative agriculture, and it's important to realize this. Many organic farms are not even using cover crops, let alone integrating holistic herd management. Biodynamic certification fills this need, and really surpasses even the most stringent organic standards ever devised.

I've fully embraced the Biodynamic concept and am currently in the process of converting some of my own products from organic to Biodynamic certified and locating sources of raw materials to do that. This is a long-term commitment as I realize it will take time and investments with farmers to make this happen. I am confident farmers and our customers will embrace this attention to quality improvements.

You Are What You Eat

According to Rudolf Steiner, Ph.D., (1861-1925) who developed the biodynamic concept, man is a microcosm of the macrocosm. The biosphere that is the Earth is intricately connected — from the tiniest bacteria in the soil all the way up to the human body, which actually contains 10 times more bacteria and other microorganisms than human cells.

What separates us from the microbiome in the soil, you could say, is merely scale and perception. With that in mind, we cannot afford to ignore soil, plant and insect health, as our health depends on theirs.

Hydroponics and aquaponics certainly have their place. They each have certain benefits, especially when compared to conventional agriculture. But neither really belongs in the organic program. At least not if we view soil as being an integral part of the equation. The NOSB's decision really strikes at the heart of what the organic movement has been all about; the idea that better soil equates to improved ecology and better health.

It is more important than every that everyone grow whatever food you can yourself — even if you don't have a backyard, try growing sprouts near a window. You will be amazed what you can accomplish in just a little space. Next best is to know your local farmers and support them for growing quality, truly organic produce. You can make an adventure out of finding local farmers and farmers' markets, visiting their farms and purchasing directly from them.

When convenience necessitates, I urge you to embrace the biodynamic standard when shopping at realize the organic label is becoming the "floor" of edible foods. Organic foods will still allow you to avoid most pesticides found in conventional food, but nutrition is likely no better than conventionally grown crops. Look for, and ask for Demeter Biodynamic certified products.

As with the organic movement, the real power lies with consumers. Another alternative is to grow more of your own food. If you're just starting out, consider growing some herbs or sprouts, which require little space and maintenance. You can also peruse the gardening section of Mercola.com, where articles on how to grow a wide variety of foods are added weekly.

Buying locally grown foods is a third way you can help shape and influence the marketplace with your food dollars. Get to know your local producers; talk to them about their growing practices. Many are using organic and regenerative methods even if they're not certified. If you live in the U.S., the following organizations can help you locate farm-fresh foods in your area:

Demeter USA

Demeter-USA.org provides a directory of certified Biodynamic farms and brands. This directory can also be found on BiodynamicFood.org.

American Grassfed Association

The goal of the American Grassfed Association is to promote the grass fed industry through government relations, research, concept marketing and public education.

Their website also allows you to search for AGA approved producers certified according to strict standards that include being raised on a diet of 100 percent forage; raised on pasture and never confined to a feedlot; never treated with antibiotics or hormones; born and raised on American family farms.

EatWild.com

EatWild.com provides lists of farmers known to produce raw dairy products as well as grass fed beef and other farm-fresh produce (although not all are certified organic). Here you can also find information about local farmers markets, as well as local stores and restaurants that sell grass fed products.

Weston A. Price Foundation

Weston A. Price has local chapters in most states, and many of them are connected with buying clubs in which you can easily purchase organic foods, including grass fed raw dairy products like milk and butter.

Grassfed Exchange

The Grassfed Exchange has a listing of producers selling organic and grass fed meats across the U.S.

Local Harvest

This website will help you find farmers markets, family farms and other sources of sustainably grown food in your area where you can buy produce, grass fed meats and many other goodies.

Farmers Markets

A national listing of farmers markets.

Eat Well Guide: Wholesome Food from Healthy Animals

The Eat Well Guide is a free online directory of sustainably raised meat, poultry, dairy and eggs from farms, stores, restaurants, inns, hotels and online outlets in the United States and Canada.

Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture (CISA)

CISA is dedicated to sustaining agriculture and promoting the products of small farms.

FoodRoutes

The FoodRoutes "Find Good Food" map can help you connect with local farmers to find the freshest, tastiest food possible. On their interactive map, you can find a listing for local farmers, CSAs and markets near you.

The Cornucopia Institute

The Cornucopia Institute maintains web-based tools rating all certified organic brands of eggs, dairy products and other commodities, based on their ethical sourcing and authentic farming practices separating CAFO "organic" production from authentic organic practices.

RealMilk.com

If you're still unsure of where to find raw milk, check out Raw-Milk-Facts.com and RealMilk.com. They can tell you what the status is for legality in your state, and provide a listing of raw dairy farms in your area. The Farm to Consumer Legal Defense Fund23 also provides a state-by-state review of raw milk laws.24 California residents can also find raw milk retailers using the store locator available at www.OrganicPastures.com.

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