Is the ‘Organic’ Produce You’re Buying Really Organic?

Proliferation of hydroponic foods has triggered controversy over what 'organic' really means

Unbeknownst to most of us, more fruits and vegetables are being grown in industrial settings, with nutrients primarily coming from a liquid fertilizer solution instead of rich, fertile soil.

Does that sound like organically grown produce to you? Or do you picture berry or tomato plants grown in healthy fertile soil as the earthy heart of organic farming?

Would it surprise you to learn that many berries, tomatoes, and some vegetables, such as peppers and cucumbers, that are now labeled organic in the United States are grown hydroponically, without any soil at all?

It’s a situation that’s unique to organic food sold in the United States and an especially odd development given the founding principles of the organic food movement and the stated views of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) on organic practices.

Organic Farming in the United States

The Organic Foods Production Act of 1990 made it clear that replenishing and maintaining soil fertility is foundational to organic farming. In 1995, the National Organic Standard Board (NOSB), the USDA’s expert advisory panel, defined organic agriculture as “an ecological production management system that promotes and enhances biodiversity, biological cycles, and soil biological activity.”

The USDA’s organic regulations describe organic agriculture as a set of practices that “support the cycling of on-farm resources, promote ecological balance, and conserve biodiversity.”

“These include maintaining or enhancing soil and water quality; conserving wetlands, woodlands, and wildlife; and avoiding use of synthetic fertilizers, sewage sludge, irradiation, and genetic engineering,” a USDA introduction to organic practices reads.

That “enhancing soil” part is key in the minds of many organic advocates. To that end, in 2010, the NOSB recommended prohibiting crop production systems that eliminate soil, such as hydroponics, from obtaining organic certification. However, the National Organic Program, part of the USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service for the USDA organic standards and the accreditation of organic certifying agents, never adopted this recommendation.

In the autumn of 2017, after a massive lobbying effort on the part of industrial agribusiness, the NOSB voted 8–7 against a recommendation to prohibit hydroponic crops from being labeled organic.

Some called the vote a watershed moment for the organic program in the United States. The hydroponic issue, along with the development of “organic” confined animal feeding operations and imports of corn and soybeans that were found to not be organic, are key areas of what many now consider organic fraud or watering down of organic standards to benefit big business.

What Is Hydroponics?

Hydroponic systems grow plants in water, essentially, often with an inert medium, such as coconut husk, to give the roots stability. The plants are fed nutrients through the water and no soil is involved in the process.

Because hydroponics eliminates soil, it removes the entire process of nurturing healthy soil capable of sustaining a rich microbial life and a variety of healthy plants. Hydroponics supporters say the method can conserve water and grow plants quickly.

Not everyone who supports hydroponics agrees with NOSB’s 2017 vote.

Dan Lubkeman, an avid proponent of hydroponics, was disappointed that the USDA granted organic status to hydroponics. He’s president of the Hydroponic Society of America (HSA), a 46-year-old nonprofit organization that promotes hydroponics.

“The word ‘organic’ was very specifically created for soil-grown plants, and hydroponics was very specifically created for soil-less growing,” he said in an email.

“Consumers want to know their food is safe. As you know, the word organic gives consumers that warm fuzzy perception of healthy, pesticide-free food.”

Lubkeman said consumers are willing to pay a premium for organic foods and the clean ideals the organic label represents.

“The hydroponic industry wants to cash in on that consumer perception of safety without putting in the years of developing their own version of the word ‘organic.’ It’s easier for them to charge more, faster, by piggybacking off the soil farmers. I think the hydroponic industry has no rights to the word organic, I think it’s lazy marketing and misleading to the consumer. Hydro-organic is an oxymoron in my book,” he said.

While the “organic” label may not be perfect, and there are issues with organic fraud, it is meaningful to consumers and organic foods are generally superior to conventional food. But organic is not hydroponic, in Lubkeman’s view, and it doesn’t need to be. Hydroponics has its own merits and should stand on them, he suggested.

“In a well-run hydroponic growing operation there’s never pesticides, no animal feces or blood/bone meals, nothing composted, and less risk of pathogens and disease. My definition of hydroponic food is ‘more food, in less space, with less water and in less time.’ Hydroponics has many advantages and is the future of farming,” he said.

Lubkeman and the HSA aren’t the only ones taking issue with hydroponics’ organic status, although most of the groups that oppose it do so because they see unique benefits from soil that are not replicated in hydroponics.

In a 2018 report, “Troubling Waters: How Hydroponic Agribusiness and the USDA Diluted Organics by Sanctioning Soil-less Growing,” the Cornucopia Institute, a prominent organic industry watchdog, reported that hydroponic growing media like coconut husks don’t provide the multiple other benefits real soil does.

“Labels on these ‘organic’ products do not differentiate hydroponic crops from soil-grown crops, despite the fact that nutrient-dense food grown in soil is in high demand by informed consumers,” the report reads.

It’s All About Soil

Putting aside the food merits of hydroponics vs soil-grown foods, there is an essential benefit to organics. Organic farming has always been based on “feed the soil, not the plant.” Real organic farming relies on the microbial activity of the soil to slowly release nutrients to the plant.

That means that the soil is capable of nurturing food for future generations without the more complex technology of hydroponic operations. It also means that the soil is returned to a natural state of rich microbial activity and ecological diversity.

When it comes to organic versus conventional agriculture, this difference is distinct. Conventional agriculture uses herbicides such as glyphosate to kill off other vegetation and then feeds the plants through chemical fertilizers.

Organic farmers have long known that healthy soil creates nutritious food, healthy people, and a healthy environment. Research bears this out. A 2014 review article in the British Journal of Nutrition examining 343 peer-reviewed publications found that organic foods have higher concentrations of health-protective antioxidants—along with lower levels of toxic heavy metals and pesticides—than nonorganic foods do.

A study reported in October 2018 in JAMA Internal Medicine found that eating organic foods can reduce the risk of developing cancer. The study followed close to 70,000 adults for five years, most of them women.

By prohibiting the use of synthetic chemical pesticides, including the problematic herbicide glyphosate, certified organic farming also benefits the environment and wildlife in many ways.

The Struggle to Keep the Soil in Organic

While “organic” hydroponic operations don’t use chemical pesticides and herbicides, they also don’t contribute to the ecological health of the larger planetary ecosystem. This distinction seems more clear to organic regulators in different countries.

Labeling hydroponic produce as “organic” is basically only occurring in the United States. Hydroponic produce is explicitly prohibited from being labeled as organic in Canada, Mexico, and most other developed countries.

The preponderance of “organic” hydroponic production comes from corporate-owned, industrial-scale facilities in the desert Southwest and Mexico (where it’s exported to the U.S.) or is imported from countries such as Holland where it is also illegal to market soil-less production as organic, according to the 2018 report.

Organic experts say hydroponics is one of a few primary threats to the integrity of the organic program. One expert leading the charge for organic foods to keep to the standards it was founded on of being grown in healthy soil is Dave Chapman, an organic tomato grower at Long Wind Farm in Vermont.

Between 2011 and 2013, Chapman started to notice something different about the organic tomatoes at all the grocery stores he visited.

“The truth is at this time the vast majority of fresh ‘certified organic’ tomatoes in the stores are hydroponic, and more of some other vegetables will become hydroponic. Organic will mean hydro-grown stuff from massive greenhouse complexes,” he said.

“Is that what organic means to us? I don’t think it is. It’s not what it means to me, and I’ve barely met anybody in the organic community who says, ‘Yes, that’s what organic means.’ Nobody believes those places should be organic except the people that run them.”

One of those people is Jim Kras, CEO of Edible Garden.

Edible Garden says it produces “sustainable, local produce, grown in Zero-Waste Inspired greenhouses.” The company works with local greenhouses to get produce it says consumers can trust.

“Edible Garden welcomes the ability to have the same opportunities to grow certified organic crops hydroponically and in CEA [controlled environment agriculture] facilities as traditional field growers. This sign of support from USDA will allow consumers to ultimately benefit from a wider selection of organic produce at their local grocery stores,” Kras said in an email interview.

Companies such as Edible Garden produce foods free of chemical pesticides and herbicides, but critics such as Chapman say that isn’t enough.

Chapman believes it’s impossible for hydroponic growers to recreate soil conditions.

“The nutrition in hydroponics is not coming from the complex dance of minerals and microbes that terrestrial plants have relied on in the soil for the last 500 million years. That is a long time. Something got figured out with all that co-evolution,” he said. “It’s a very sophisticated eco-system that is created in which the plants feed the microbes in the soil, and the microbes feed the plants.”

Sorting Through the Confusion

Hydroponic is a radical departure from the way that a plant gets its nutrition in nature, though hydroponic supporters such as Lubkeman say hydroponics just makes it easier for a plant to absorb inorganic, processed elements derived from organic elements such as nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium.

But for those who want to do more than avoid toxic inputs into agriculture and want to support a food production system that nurtures the essential health of the soil, hydroponics doesn’t quite cut it.

One way to avoid buying hydroponically grown produce labeled “organic” is to consult the Guide to Avoid Soilless Organic Produce that the Cornucopia Institute created for shoppers. It lists brands of produce that grow their produce hydroponically or without native soil.

Ways to Select Soil-Grown Organic Produce

Better yet, find soil-grown organic produce and products by looking for two relatively new add-on labels to USDA Organic. Farmers and advocates of strong organic practices haven’t abandoned the USDA organic program but have taken action to build on it to maintain the integrity of real organic farming.

Real Organic Project

After unsuccessful efforts to get hydroponics out of produce with the USDA Organic label, Chapman co-founded the Real Organic Project—a farmer-led movement that was created to distinguish soil-grown produce and pasture-raised products under USDA Organic.

Real Organic Project operates as an add-on label to certified organic, meaning it only certifies farms that are already USDA Organic. It doesn’t cost any money for a farm to become Real Organic Project certified because the certification program is funded by eaters, farmers, and private foundations that want to differentiate farms that are growing their animals and their crops to the letter—and spirit—of the certified organic standards.

Real Organic Project (ROP) certified 60 farms in its first year, 2018; 1,100 farms will be ROP certified by the end of 2022. You can also look for products with the ROP logo on food products made from these farms. Learn more at RealOrganicProject.org.

Regenerative Organic Certified

Regenerative Organic Certified (ROC) is another new certification for food, fiber, and personal care ingredients. Established in 2017 by a group of farmers, business leaders, and experts called the Regenerative Organic Alliance, ROC encompasses organic farming, then raises the bar, prioritizing improving soil health and building soil carbon, pasture-based animal welfare, and social fairness for farmworkers. Learn more at Regenorganic.org.

Melissa Diane Smith is a holistic nutrition counselor and journalist who has been writing about health topics for more than 25 years. She is the author of several nutrition books, including “Syndrome X,” “Going Against the Grain,” “Gluten Free Throughout the Year,” and “Going Against GMOs.”
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