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It is one of the real mysteries in our industry.
With regenerative agriculture a clear priority for nearly every single brand, why is there such widespread indifference when it comes to hydroponics being allowed in organic?
After all, there is little debate about the importance of organic farmers using their soil to capture carbon from the environment, and regenerative organic advocates are working overtime to educate politicians about this being a critical solution in the fight against climate change.
However, as each day passes, “organic” hydroponics — plants grown in plastic containers of water instead of nutrient-rich soil — continue to proliferate. And with severe consequences.
Soil-based organic farmers are having an increasingly difficult time competing against “organic” hydroponic producers, who can operate at much greater scale and do not have to manage the complexities of the soil. This unlevel playing field has and will continue to push them out of business, resulting in fewer soil-based organic farms capturing carbon from the environment.
Furthermore, consumers now have much less choice when it comes to buying soil-grown, organic produce.
“Hydroponics are the complete opposite of organic, and make no mistake about it, they are taking over organic berries and tomatoes. Also, they are now moving into organic greens,” said Dave Chapman, co-director of the Real Organic Project. “It is becoming very challenging, if not impossible, for shoppers across the country to find soil-grown, organic berries and tomatoes at a supermarket.”
PUSHBACK FROM ALL PARTS OF THE INDUSTRY IS LONG OVERDUE
When it comes to organic regulations, the law is clear.
Section 6513 b-1 of the Organic Foods Production Act says that:
An organic plan shall contain provisions designed to foster soil fertility, primarily through the management of the organic content of the soil through proper tillage, crop rotation, and manuring.
Growing plants in a bucket of water has nothing to do with fostering soil fertility, but the USDA has refused to acknowledge this, primarily because of the very effective tactics of corporate lobbyists.
To combat this situation, the Center for Food Safety has taken up the legal fight against the USDA to have hydroponics banned. Additionally, when the Real Organic Project and Regenerative Organic Certified® were formed — the two most prominent add-on organic labels — the prohibition of hydroponics were cornerstone principles.
While these groups and others have long opposed hydroponics, the majority of the industry has not.
“Many companies that have nothing to do with hydroponics have supported the hydroponics invasion by their silence, and it is a kind of mutual aid among corporations. We saw it during the battles with the National Organic Standards Board. Unfortunately, the Organic Trade Association has been very supportive of hydroponics, even though they claimed they weren’t. It was very confusing,” said Dave Chapman.
“On the issue of certifying hydroponics, we have seen a large outcry from the farmers but not from the brands. Three major companies — Patagonia, Nature’s Path and Dr. Bronner’s — have joined the farmers by speaking out against the certification of hydroponics, and we are grateful. If the other organic brands stood up to join the farmers, it would be a very different outcome. When the brands say they support regenerative organic but remain silent on the certification of hydroponics, they do great damage to the organic label,” he continued.
If our industry is serious about making regenerative a priority and having soil remain as a foundational element of what organic represents, the issue of hydroponics can no longer be swept under the carpet.
The clear first step is to aggressively lobby politicians and USDA officials to have hydroponics banned in organic.
But given the uncertainty of how long that could take and the dire seriousness of this problem, the industry also needs to immediately join forces with the Real Organic Project and Regenerative Organic Certified® to both source soil-grown produce for its products and build the necessary supply chains so that soil remains the priority.
This widespread silence on hydroponics is something that the integrity of the organic seal can no longer afford.
Max Goldberg, Founder
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