By Dr. Mercola
When it comes to organic food, it's buyer beware. Fake organics abound these days, be it organic eggs laid by hens cooped up in gigantic factory farms, organic beef and milk from cows raised under anything but humane, pastured conditions, or hydroponic vegetables grown under artificial lighting in conventional coconut waste or ground up plastic, fertilized with a liquid slurry of conventionally grown (and hence pesticide-laden) processed soybeans.
Indeed, the U.S. Department of Agriculture's (USDA) organic label has become increasingly watered down over the years. With the inclusion of hydroponics in the organic standards, it's at risk of becoming altogether moot.
On one side of this fight you have family-scale, soil-based organic farmers whose focus is producing nutrient-dense food while simultaneously improving soil health. On the other you have corporate, industrial-scale hydroponic growers whose produce is actually lower in nutrients1 and does nothing to improve soil conditions on farms.
Organic Versus Hydroponic
According to section 7 CFR 205.2052,3 of USDA organic regulations, an organic grower's crop rotation plan must maintain or improve soil organic matter. The main legal argument against the inclusion of hydroponics in the USDA's organic standards is that since hydroponics do not involve the use of soil at all, it cannot qualify for organic certification in the first place.
Despite such clear-cut definitions of what constitutes organic farming, a large number of hydroponic operators were still quietly granted organic certification4,5,6 under the lead of Miles McEvoy, former deputy administrator of the USDA's National Organic Program (NOP).7 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, and despite passionate opposition by soil-based farmers and organic pioneers, the board chose to reverse their previous position, and not to stand in the way of granting organic certification to hydroponic growers.
The NOSB, now stacked with agribusiness-affiliated representatives, also decided to allow aquaponics, where fish and plants are raised together in a synergistic cycle, despite the fact that there are no organic standards for this type of production. However, the NOSB voted to bar aeroponics from organic certification. Aeroponics involves neither soil nor nutrient-rich water, relying on moist air to nourish the plants' roots instead. The fallout from this November 1 vote has been nothing if not dramatic.
Co-author of Organic Standards Says Organic Certification of Hydroponics Is Illegal
Jim Riddle, steering committee chair of the Organic Farmers Association (OFA),8 who in the early '90s co-wrote the Organic Trade Association'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.'
In the wake of the NOSB's decision to certify hydroponics as organic, many organic pioneers have threatened to abandon USDA organic certification altogether. Another alternative brought forth by Mark Kastel, cofounder and codirector of the Cornucopia Institute,9 is to develop an alternative label to distinguish between soil- and nonsoil-based organics.
Authentic Organics Are Being Squeezed Out by 'Fauxganics'
The Cornucopia Institute is actively researching filing a lawsuit to reverse the USDA's "illegal" certification of hydroponic/soilless growing. In the meantime, the final arbiter of what is and is not acceptable as organic is you. If you refuse to buy organic foods raised in factory farms or grown without soil, true organics may still be salvageable. The Cornucopia Institute is also collecting proxy letters 10 to be formally presented to corporate officers at national grocery chains.
This includes John Mackey at Whole Foods Markets, Amazon's Jeff Bezos and W. Craig Jelinek at Costco, just to name a few of the retailers that sell fake organics, thereby promoting the elimination of real, authentic organic foods, grown and raised with animal, human and environmental health equally in mind.
The proxy letter calls on these companies to use store signage that informs consumers about the differences between true organics and conventional food produced with hydroponic (sometimes also referred to as container growing), aeroponic and aquaponics technology.
Considering the fact that organic certified hydroponic produce is far less expensive to grow, and hence demands a lower retail price, hydroponically grown vegetables are rapidly taking over the organic produce market — even though they don't even qualify as organic in the first place.
Are You Paying a Premium for Fake Organic Milk and Eggs?
The proxy letter also urges the listed grocers to "adopt a sourcing policy to only market organic milk and dairy products from brands that procure their raw milk from farmers that treat their cows respectfully and at a scale where it is conceivable they can meet the spirit and letter of the organic law that requires maximizing grazing and pasture consumption."
At present Target, Costco and Walmart source their storebrand organic milk from Aurora Dairy, which had been found to willfully violate 14 tenets of the organic standards. For starters, evidence gathered by Cornucopia and The Washington Post suggests Aurora confines most of its cattle most of the time, even though organic standards call for cattle being free to roam on pasture. Not surprisingly, testing of the fatty acid profile of Aurora Dairy milk revealed it matched conventional, not organic milk.11
While the appeal to retailing CEOs is gaining traction, protect your family by consulting Cornucopia's organic dairy scorecard, separating organic high-integrity dairy brands from what they call the "factory farm imposters." Lastly, the proxy letter calls for the creation of a corporate plan to switch suppliers for private label eggs to producers that allow chickens outdoor access as required by federal organic laws. Eggland's Best, for example, is to organic eggs what Aurora is to organic dairy.
One of its gigantic factory farms houses an estimated 180,000 to 200,000 birds per barn, or more than three hens per square foot of floor space, and these birds never set foot outdoors.12 This despite the fact that organic standards require organic livestock to have ample access to the outdoors and to engage in natural behavior, and are supposed to get both direct sunlight and fresh air.
Retailers Aid and Abet Organic Fraud
You can sign the Cornucopia proxy letter to grocery chain leaders below, and I would encourage you to do so, as no further progress on these issues can be made through the USDA or the NOSB. It's become quite clear that the USDA is dancing to the tune of agribusiness lobbyists, not organic farmers and consumers.
As noted by the Cornucopia Institute in a recent stakeholder letter, "It's time to draw a line in the sand. On the front lines, the businesses that have the ability to say no to organic fraud are the natural/specialty foods and grocery retailers. Many are willing co-conspirators in the corporate sellout of true meaning of organics."
It seems market pressure — "hitting them where it hurts," meaning their financial bottom line — is the only way to incentivize these retailers to help clean up the organic industry and its standards rather than merely profiting from organic fraud. Any company that decides to honor these consumer demands stands to gain a significant market advantage. As noted by the Cornucopia Institute:13
"Top retailers like Whole Foods Markets, Costco, Target, Safeway, Walmart, and Kroger must be convinced to provide choices in their grocery aisles for authentic, nutrient-dense organic food grown in rich, carefully stewarded soil. If the nutrients are not in our soil, they are not in our food, and they are not in our families!
Factory farm meat, dairy and egg production, and fruits and vegetables grown without soil rich in humus result in inferior flavor and nutrition … Corporate agribusinesses and factory farms are watering down the meaning of organics. They could not operate without retail representation. They are squeezing out ethical, family-scale farmers and their marketing partners. Real organic farmers, and their loyal customers, are being cheated."
Take Action Now — Sign Proxy Letter to Grocery Chain Leaders
If retailers don't carry, and people don't buy, the foods produced by authentic organic farmers, these farmers will simply go under. The grocery chains listed on this proxy are opting for fauxganics rather than the real thing, and in so doing, they're cheating you out of your hard-earned money.
After all, I think it's safe to say that when you choose to pay extra for an organic version of a product, you do so because you expect it to have certain inherent qualities and benefits, not just an extra word on the label. So, please, print out, sign and mail the proxy letter back to Cornucopia, and let the CEOs at Target, Costco and Walmart know that you're tired of being ripped off, and you're not going to buy any more of their organic products until or unless they clean up their act.
Pesticide Companies Moving Into Hydroponics Business
Pesticide contamination is yet another area where authentic organics shine and fauxganics fall short. It may only be a matter of time before hydroponic produce becomes as prone to chemical contamination as conventional produce.
According to The Cannabist, Scotts Miracle-Gro — which has a long-standing partnership with Monsanto to market and distribute Roundup14 — has quietly invested half a billion dollars into a wholly owned subsidiary named the Hawthorne Gardening Co. with the aim of capturing the hydroponic business, starting with marijuana growers.15
It's goal, according to Scotts CEO Jim Hagedorn, is16 "To become the best supplier of hydroponic growing products in the world to both the consumer and professional markets." For the nine months of 2017, Hawthorne sales grew by 160 percent. In 2016, the company grew 300 percent. These sales spikes are largely due to the acquisitions of Gavita, which sells grow lights, and two nutrient manufacturers, Botanicare and General Hydroponics.
Can we really expect a pesticide company to have the "heart" of an organic grower? And don't you find it a bit Orwellian that half the NOSB members listened to Scotts representatives lobbing them, rather than pioneering organic farmers, when they green-lighted hydroponics for organic labeling? There is a lot money at stake related to this issue.
Reliable Organic Sources
Hydroponics has its place, but does not belong in the organic program — at least not if we view soil as being an integral part of the equation, which most organic and regenerative farmers do. You simply cannot have a regenerative farm without working with your soil. You also cannot grow optimally nutritious food without nurturing healthy soil fertility.
Testing shows hydroponics is not superior or even equal to organic in this regard, which is yet another way consumers are being deceived, as many believe, for good reason, the superior nutrition of true organic produce helps justify the higher cost. As it stands, major grocery retailers are taking advantage of consumers' increasing demand for healthier foods, while not actually selling you the real deal. This needs to stop, and you can help make that happen.
As noted by the Cornucopia Institute, the reason why they've opted for a proxy letter rather than an electronic petition is because online petitions are notoriously overlooked. They're incredibly easy to create and easy to click on. So, as they have proliferated, political and business leaders now greatly discount their value.
An originally signed proxy letter carries a lot more weight, and tends to be taken more seriously. So, please, if you're at all concerned with where the organic industry is going, take a moment to print out, sign and mail back your proxy letter, and please feel free to add a line or two of personal comments if you wish.
Last but not least, understand that Costco, Target and Walmart are hardly ideal sources for authentic organic foods. If you live in the U.S., the following organizations can help you find a reliable source:
Demeter-USA.org provides a directory of certified Biodynamic farms and brands. This directory can also be found on BiodynamicFood.org.
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 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 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.
The Grassfed Exchange has a listing of producers selling organic and grass fed meats across the U.S.
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.
A national listing of farmers markets.
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.
CISA is dedicated to sustaining agriculture and promoting the products of small farms.
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 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.
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 Fund17 also provides a state-by-state review of raw milk laws.18 California residents can also find raw milk retailers using the store locator available at www.OrganicPastures.com.