How would consumers feel if they knew that their organic berries, tomatoes and leafy greens, which are meant to be a vital source of antioxidants, were grown in containers of water instead of nutrient-rich soil in the ground?
Some may not care.
Others would be furious, especially when they realize that liquid nutrients fed to hydroponic plants could never be a sufficient substitute for the microbial ecosystem that feeds soil-based plants.
Until now, however, shoppers have been completely in the dark as to how their organic fruits and vegetables are grown, leaving them ill-informed at both the checkout counter and the dinner table.
Seeking to remedy this situation and provide consumers with the transparency that they have come to expect, The Alliance for Sustainable Hydroponics has introduced a brand new certification called Clean Hydroponic Produce. This hydroponic certification, which is not regulated by the USDA nor a substitute for the USDA organic seal, can be used with either organic or conventional produce, similar to the Non-GMO Project.
Natural Grocers, the nation’s largest family-operated natural and organic grocery chain with 159 stores, is the first retailer to pilot the certification and intends to have its first batch of certified Clean Hydroponic Produce vegetables for sale at a select number of stores in October.
A BOTTOMS-UP APPROACH
Hydroponics remains one of the most controversial subjects in the organic industry, and the USDA is allowing this growing method even though it is a complete violation of Section 6513 of the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990 (OFPA).
Section 6513 b-1 of OFPA 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.”
Blueberries growing in a plastic bucket of water have absolutely nothing to do with the fostering of soil fertility. Nevertheless, the USDA’s National Organic Program has allowed this practice for many years, putting soil-based organic farmers at a serious operating, marketing and financial disadvantage.
With organic advocates unable to make headway fighting against hydroponics at the National Organic Standards Board, the Center for Food Safety and other industry stakeholders have since taken up the cause and filed a lawsuit against the USDA in hopes of reversing this policy.
“Healthy soil is the foundation of organic farming,” said Andrew Kimbrell, Executive Director of the Center for Food Safety. “The USDA’s loophole for corporate hydroponics to be sold under the ‘Organic’ label guts the very essence of organic.”
While this lawsuit works its way through the courts, the new Clean Hydroponic Produce certification will serve a few important objectives, most notably to drive change from the consumer level.
First, it will raise awareness among shoppers that hydroponics is a growing method widely used in organic, something that may come as a shock to many individuals.
Second, consumers can start to put pressure on retailers to require that hydroponic growers use this certification or otherwise disclose that products have been grown hydroponically.
“At Natural Grocers, we are committed to being honest with our customers. That includes telling them how the organic fruits and vegetables we sell are grown. Over the last decade, the USDA has quietly allowed no-soil hydroponics to be marketed using the USDA organic seal, which we believe hides from shoppers how hydroponic produce is produced. That is why we have participated with organic stakeholders to build the pilot of the Clean Hydroponic Produce standard — to keep our commitment of transparency to our customers,” said Alan Lewis, VP of Government Affairs and Organic Compliance at Natural Grocers.
The Clean Hydroponic Produce certification has three different scopes, of which the first scope has been established and the remaining two will be fully developed with additional input from the industry.
Scope 1 — Plants growing indoors with artificial light, similar to many cannabis operations.
Scope 2 — Plants growing indoors, under glass or tenting, that receive both natural sunlight and artificial light when the sun goes down.
Scope 3 — Plants growing outdoors in containers.
Additionally, brands that become certified will agree to participate in joint research, disclose all energy usage, and label all of their products as hydroponic and grown using inputs that are OMRI-listed or compliant with the USDA’s National Organic Program.
WHAT DO WE WANT ORGANIC TO BE?
Yet, for Dave Chapman, Executive Director of the Real Organic Project and someone who is adamantly against hydroponics in organic, he believes the Clean Hydroponic Produce certification is a step in the right direction.
“It is disclosure, and I support the courageous efforts to create an honest label,” he said.
But for him, the entire hydroponics issue points to something larger.
“The question that people need to be asking themselves is whether ‘real’ organic matters. Are people okay with the majority of our meat, eggs and dairy being produced at organic CAFOs and the majority of our organic berries and tomatoes being grown hydroponically? Or, do we say that this is a really important issue, and we want to support a different, more authentic type of farming that is a true alternative to conventional agriculture?”
This new Clean Hydroponic Produce certification will help enable consumers to ask themselves these very questions and force the marketplace to deliver an organic food supply that meets their needs and expectations.
(These are the hydroponic leafy greens grown by Natural Grocers, which will carry the Clean Hydroponic Produce seal. The facility will be USDA certified organic, but the leafy greens will not be labeled with the USDA organic seal.)
This is part one of a planned two-part series about hydroponics.
Max Goldberg, Founder
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