Delivering the week’s top organic food news
9.9.2020
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When it Comes to How Organic Produce is Grown, Consumers Must Demand Much Greater Transparency


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Because of the way our industry is regulated, it is difficult, if not nearly impossible, to tell which organic fruits and vegetables are grown in the soil and which ones are grown hydroponically.

Yet, why should organic consumers care?

Hydroponics violates Section 6513 b-1 of the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990, which states that farmers must have a management plan that fosters soil fertility. Growing tomatoes in a bucket of water has nothing to do with fostering soil fertility.

And with the USDA declaring that hydroponics is legal in organic, soil-based farmers must compete in the marketplace at a severe financial and operating disadvantage. Hydroponics is much easier to scale and is more profitable than growing plants in the ground.

Lastly, liquid nutrients fed to hydroponic plants could never be a sufficient substitute for the microbial ecosystem that feeds soil-based plants.  

Concerned industry players have not been sitting by idly.

Two recently created add-on labels — Real Organic Project and Regenerative Organic Certified — both prohibit hydroponics, and the Center for Food Safety filed a lawsuit against the USDA for allowing this growing method.

With both of the add-on labels still in very early stages and the lawsuit having yet to be resolved, how can consumers identify and purchase soil-grown organic produce?

To find out, we visited six national and regional supermarkets in the Boston area last week — Whole Foods Market in Brookline, Costco in Everett, Target in Everett, Walmart Supercenter in Saugus, Stop & Shop in Saugus, and Wegmans in Medford — and looked to see how their organic leafy greens, organic berries and organic tomatoes were labeled, both on the package and on the companies’ websites.

Here are the products we found:

ORGANIC TOMATOES

365 Grape Tomatoes – Whole Foods Market
Jersey Gems Grape Tomatoes – Whole Foods Market
Lady Moon Farms Tomatoes – Whole Foods Market
Long Wind Farm Tomatoes – Wegmans
Nature’s Promise Grape Tomatoes – Stop & Shop
Royale Tomatoes – Whole Foods Market
Sunset Tomatoes – Stop & Shop

ORGANIC BERRIES

Driscoll’s Blueberries – Wegmans
Green Belle Blueberries – Whole Foods Market
Hippie Organics Blueberries – Stop & Shop
Ladybug Blueberries – Target
Naturipe Blueberries – Stop & Shop, Target
Norris Farms Blueberries – Walmart
Rainier Blueberries – Costco

Driscoll’s Raspberries – Whole Foods Market, Stop & Shop, Wegmans
Fresh Kampo Raspberries – Walmart

Driscoll’s Strawberries – Whole Foods Market, Costco, Target, Stop & Shop, Wegmans

Driscoll’s Blackberries – Whole Foods Market, Target, Stop & Shop

ORGANIC LEAFY GREENS

365 Hearts of Romaine – Whole Foods Market
Cal-Organic Green Leaf Lettuce, Spinach Arugula & Radicchio Blend, Kale Greens – Wegmans
Earth Greens Baby Spinach – Costco
Earthbound Farms Baby Spinach, Spring Mix, Romaine Hearts – Costco
Good & Gather Power Greens, Baby Arugula, Baby Spinach, Baby Kale – Target
Josie’s Organic Spring Mix – Costco
Lovin’ Life Spring Mix – Wegmans
Nature’s Greens Tuscan Kale and Collard Greens – Walmart
Organic Girl Baby Arugula, Romaine and Butter Plus – Target
Organic Girl Butter and Plus Lettuce – Whole Foods Market
Organic Marketside Romaine Hearts, Iceberg Lettuce, Spring Mix, Baby Arugula & Baby Spinach, Baby Spinach, Rainbow Kale – Walmart
Ready Pac Salad Kits – Costco
Taylor Farms Mediterranean Chopped Salad Kit – Costco
Wegmans Organic Mediterranean Salad Kit – Wegmans
Whole Foods Market Baby Spinach, Baby Spinach and Spring Mix – Whole Foods Market

Here is the information we found:

ON-PACKAGING LABELS

– Not one product was labeled as “grown in the soil” or “grown hydroponically.”
– Long Wind Farm tomatoes had the “Real Organic Project” seal on it, which represents “grown in the soil.”

WEBSITES

We visited each brand’s website, and almost all of them did not explicitly say how their produce was grown, although many had pictures of outdoor farms and some referenced the importance of the soil.

A few of the brands did address their growing practices, and at the bottom are screenshots from their websites.

– Long Wind Farm says “our tomatoes are certified organic and grown in nutrient-rich soil inside a greenhouse.”

– Lady Moon Farms says “we are and have always been 100% soil grown.”

Lady Moon Farms also calls out the problem of hydroponics and container growing systems, and encourages consumers to “ask your produce manager if the organic produce you’re buying is hydroponic.”

(A container growing system most commonly contains coconut coir or a similar ‘inert’ medium in its container. The vast preponderance of plant nutrients comes from a water-based fertilizer solution. According to Mark Kastel of OrganicEye, hydroponic operators started using the term “container growing system” when “hydroponics” became too controversial and was seen as potentially illegal.)

– Driscoll’s, which dominates the organic berry market and is believed by many industry players to be growing its organic fruits hydroponically, says that it “does not grow hydroponic, aquaponic or aeroponic crops” and that “hydroponics and container production are two very distinct and different growing systems.”

This last statement contradicts the assertion made by Lady Moon Farms, which says “container growing is the same as hydroponic growing as all nutrition comes through a constant IV drip to the plant.”

Driscoll’s also claims that its “organic supply comes from both certified in-ground production and certified containerized production.”

However, if consumers want to buy organic berries from Driscoll’s that have been grown in the ground, how are they supposed to do this? On the packaging of all of Driscoll’s products, nowhere does it state that the berries have either been grown in the ground or grown via containerized production.

SHOULD IT BE THIS HARD?

For organic farms and brands that do not disclose exactly how their fruits and vegetables are grown — in the soil, hydroponically, aeroponically, aquaponically or via a container growing system — are they violating organic rules?

Absolutely not. They are under no legal obligation to do so.

However, there is a segment of the organic industry, including consumer advocacy groups and farming organizations, that believes soil-less systems are illegal and should not be part of organic.

Similarly, a growing number of organic consumers want to know how their produce is grown, either in the soil or not in the soil — even if this disclosure is not required by the USDA.

Francis Thicke, an organic dairy farmer in Iowa, knows this situation as well as anyone, having served on the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) and a recipient of all of the hydroponic lobbying.

“We have a rapidly growing percentage of the organic fruits and vegetables on grocery store shelves being produced hydroponically, without soil, and mostly in huge industrial-scale facilities. And we have a hydroponics industry that has deceptively renamed ‘hydroponic’ production — even with 100% liquid feeding — as ‘container’ production. With their clever deception, they have been able to bamboozle even the majority of the NOSB members into complicity with their goal of taking over the organic fruit and vegetable market with their hydroponic products,” he said in his 2017 farewell address before his 5-year tenure as a member of the NOSB came to a conclusion.

Figuring out whether an organic tomato is grown in the soil should not be this hard.

The time has come for organic consumers to start demanding full and easy disclosure from organic brands, farmers and retailers.

—–

From the website of Long Wind Farm:

 

From the website of Lady Moon Farms:

 

From the website of Driscoll’s:

This was Part II of our two-part series on hydroponics. In our Part I of the series, we wrote about the new hydroponic certification called Clean Hydroponic Produce.

With gratitude,

Max Goldberg, Founder

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