Organic Hydroponics vs. Soil and the USDA Lawsuit


 Organic hydroponics vs soil
Co-authored by Riyana Razalee and Tinia Pina

Background
The contentious issue of organic hydroponics vs soil certification remains at the forefront of the agriculture industry. In 2017, the National Organic Standards Board voted in favor of hydroponics being certified organic. However, just a few months ago, a lawsuit was filed by a group of organic farmers and advocates against the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) over this decision. Although a number of the organic farmers had positive thoughts on the hydroponic industry, as a whole there was consensus that hydroponics should not fall under the organic category.

Pro-Lawsuit Perspective

The organic hydroponic vs. soil lawsuit claims that hydroponic operations violate the 1990 Organic Foods Production Act that mandates the need for organic crop production in order to build healthy soils. Since hydroponic farming is soilless, the argument is that these standards cannot ever be met. Therefore, organic certification should not be allowed. Organic farmers also highlight increased competition in an unfair manner. Larger hydroponic farms usually incur lower costs to grow the same food, thereby capturing even higher margins through their produce sales, while offering more value to the consumers for the same products. From a consumer and market perspective, claims have also been made that this certification weakens the integrity of the term “organic”, creates a lot of confusion, and opens up loopholes for inconsistent organic certifications.

 "[The lawsuit] claims that hydroponic operations violate the 1990 Organic Foods Production Act that mandates the need for organic crop production in order to build healthy soils."



Anti-Lawsuit Perspective

For proponents of hydroponic organic certification, they stress that irrespective of whether food is grown in soil or not, it does not necessarily fully indicate whether the food is organic or not. The National Organic Program (NOP) also disagrees with the plaintiffs, stating that the 1990 statutory and regulatory provisions which require soil cultivation applies specifically to systems which do use soil. In other words, the regulation was not created to exclude soilless (“hydroponic”) systems. Instead, its purpose was to ensure best practices within soil-based farming, first and foremost. If food is grown in other sustainable, certified organic growing media, they should still be eligible for organic certification. Anti-lawsuit proponents also pressed on the issue of limitation of fair competition by organic farmers, claiming that this exclusion is being done in order to monopolize the premium organic market, thus driving prices up further.

 "[I]rrespective of whether food is grown in soil or not, it does necessarily fully indicate whether the food is organic or not."



Organic Hydroponics vs. Soil: Finding Common Ground

Ecologically speaking, it cannot be denied that fertile soil promotes healthy interaction between beneficial microorganisms. These microorganisms are incredibly important for crop production as well as the environment, and ultimately, this enhances the land's ability to sequester carbon and retain nutrients and water. However, do we limit ourselves by saying that this is the only input that necessitates an environment for organic production? Interestingly enough, a 2017 poll by the health food store chain, Natural Grocers, found that over 90 percent of respondents cited pesticide avoidance as their key reason for purchasing organic products. Yet, we fail to acknowledge that the organic hydroponics vs. soil debate should be more multi-faceted than just focusing on one key factor such as “pesticide-free” or soil-only growth.

To do this, we need to look even bigger – How is every step of the food production process using inputs which come from an organic source and /or growing method? There are plans by the NOP to integrate new provisions from the 2018 Farm Bill related to oversight, enforcement, data reporting, and technology into the USDA organic regulations. In addition, the NOP will prioritize farm-to-market traceability for the global organic supply chain, ensuring an even more holistic view of what the organic term should constitute, which undoubtedly should include soil, but in reality also includes various inputs along the supply chain. In soil, compost and other organic fertilizers are typically added directly to this media during cultivation. The organic fertilizer is subsequently degraded by soil microorganisms, which make organic compounds readily available for absorption by the plant.

 "[W]e need to look even bigger – How is every step of the food production process using inputs which come from an organic source and /or growing method? "



Re-Nuble’s mindset has always been about how we can bring back closed loop food again, realizing that nobody has been able to efficiently take organic nutrients and turn it into a viable nutrient solution at a scale that makes it competitive with commercial grade synthetic fertilizers for soilless farms. However, if the microbial community that degrades organic fertilizer can be cultured in a soilless system, it should be possible to meet the organic growing standards that those representing the pro-lawsuit perspective are seeking. This is something we have not only spent the last 5 years researching but have also been very intentional about. Using our approach of organic cycling, and having developed a nutrient delivery system, we can achieve what we recognize as missing in this lawsuit within the soilless community, by employing a myriad of methods, including composting technology, which is essentially decomposed organic matter. Every stage of our production is viewed as circular, ensuring that we are not only carbon neutral, but also relieving our land (and soil) of further environmental stress.

So really, could the solution be as simple as asking ourselves, “Is the organic hydroponic vs soil conversation really just about soil, or should we hold ourselves to higher standards and, instead, focus on optimizing for efficient food production systems, especially as providers of nutrition to entire communities?”

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