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Hydroponics and The Soul of Organic

I just got back from the National Organic Standards Board meeting in Denver, and echoing the words of esteemed organic advocate and farmer Michael Sligh, “the soul of organic is at stake.”

Currently, hydroponics (growing plants in water) or other container growing systems (growing plants in a nutrient-free substrate like peat moss or coconut coir and then adding micronized fish or hydrolyzed soy for nutrition for the plants) are being allowed under the USDA’s National Organic Program.

Why is this a problem?

Organic was founded on the basis of growing plants in the soil. Period.

People buy organic because it tastes better, has superior nutrition and is optimal for the environment. And this is all the result of the rich soil in organic farms.

Despite the fact that it does have tremendous value to society, growing plants in water or container systems is just not organic. The language in the Organic Foods Production Act (OFPA) of 1990, which was ratified by Congress, affirms this stance.

The USDA defines soil as:

(i) The unconsolidated mineral or organic material on the immediate surface of the Earth that serves as a natural medium for the growth of land plants. (ii) The unconsolidated mineral or organic matter on the surface of the Earth that has been subjected to and shows effects of genetic and environmental factors of: climate (including water and temperature effects), and macro- and microorganisms, conditioned by relief, acting on parent material over a period of time.

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.

Because of this language, hydroponics or other container growing systems cannot be legally justified under OFPA. Yet, they are being allowed, and neither the USDA nor the NOSB, which advises the USDA about organic rules and regulations, are taking the necessary steps to prohibit these growing methods under organic.

Why is this?

Money, of course.

Big corporate organic interests have pressured the USDA and NOSB to allow hydroponics and other container growing systems, and at each NOSB meeting they do nothing but try to confuse members as a stall tactic.

They push for more discussion, present more research, roll out more scientific papers, fly in more experts from around the world about what constitutes a container growing system and whether it is nutritionally equivalent to a soil-based system. This has gone on for 10 years with absolutely no end and no clarity in sight.

Meanwhile, the organic hydroponics industry is now estimated to be worth $1 billion, and experts scare NOSB members into thinking that eliminating hydroponics and other container-based growing systems would have disastrous economic consequences for the industry and consumers. Like master tacticians, these industry experts and lobbyists are playing the “Too Big to Fail” card.

As confusion and disagreement abound among NOSB members, the can inevitably gets kicked down the road every single meeting, year after year, including this most recent one in Denver.

The only questions that the NOSB should be asking itself, which I put forth in my public testimony, are the following:

Under OFPA, is a soil-based growing system mandatory?

If the answer is ‘yes’, which the language in OFPA clearly affirms, why are we having any discussion about any type of container system?

There is no doubt that hydroponics and container-based systems benefit society. No one is debating that.

However, they are not organic, and I believe that these systems are in complete violation of the true meaning, spirit and intent of the Organic Foods Production Act.

Unless something is done, organic hydroponics will continue to flourish and an increasing number of soil-based, family farms will disappear. More and more of our fruits and vegetables will be grown in water, robbing us of the essence and life force that we so desperately need and desire from organic food.

Big corporate interests are changing the very nature of organic production right before our eyes. And in the process, they are also robbing from us the soul of organic.

Are we going to let this happen?

Have a great day!

Max Goldberg, Founder

This Week's News Items

Weekly News Summaries

First Course
The Denver Post

Report: 86% of Consumers Care About Welfare Standards for Organic Meats and Poultry

By Hayley Sanchez

At last week's NOSB meeting, Consumer Reports released findings from its research which indicates that animal welfare standards are very important to organic shoppers.


Will Albertsons Buy Whole Foods?

By Lucinda Shen

The Financial Times reported that Albertsons is taking a serious look at buying Whole Foods.


Certified Organic Operations Grew 13% Last Year

In another promising data point, the USDA said that the number of certified organic operations in the U.S. grew 13% to 24,650. Globally, that number reached 37,032.

Second Course
The Daily Beast

Organic Consumer Ivanka Trump Stays Silent on Pesticides

By Michael Daly

Organic advocate Ivanka Trump preaches the healthy lifestyle but when it comes time to taking a stand against harmful chemicals, she stays completely silent. The Daily Beast calls her out on this and rightly so.

Capital Press

GMO-Contamination Liability Bill Survives in Oregon Legislature

By Mateusz Perkowski

An important bill that would hold biotech companies liable for GMO-contamination has survived a critical deadline in Oregon's state legislature.

The Ecologist

Monsanto Found Guilty at The Hague

By Claire Robinson

At the Monsanto Tribunal in the The Hague, five judges ruled that the company has "engaged in practices which have negatively impacted the right to a healthy environment, the right to food, and the right to health." The ruling, however, is symbolic and is not legally binding.

Third Course

Is CVS Following the Whole Foods Blueprint?

By Barbara Thau

With a much greater emphasis on wellness and organic & natural products, CVS appears set to become the Whole Foods of the pharmacy world.

The Guardian

Mislabeling of 'Organic' Beauty Products is a Real Problem in the UK

By Rebecca Smithers

In a report by the Soil Association in the UK, a lack of standards for organic and natural beauty products has left 76% of consumers feeling very misled.

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This Week's Quick Hits

Quick Hits

* Other news from the NOSB meetings:

* – The board unanimously voted 15-0 to endorse the Organic Animal Welfare Standards (more on this below). While this was nothing more than a ceremonial vote, it sends a strong message that the organic community is united on this front. If the rule goes into effect as is, 75% of organic eggs will disappear from supermarkets because they are produced in violation of this rule.

* – The issue of fraudulent organic grains imported from Turkey and Ukraine is being taken very, very seriously. I spoke with one representative from the USDA who said that multiple government agencies are now investigating this matter.

* I shot two Facebook Live videos from Denver. One was with an organic farmer from Colorado whose property was contaminated by her neighbor spraying toxic pesticides, and the government did nothing to protect her. A tragic, tragic story.

* The other was with Dave Chapman, an organic farmer from Vermont, who talked about the importance of soil and how hydroponics should not be allowed in organic.

* On Living Maxwell, I interviewed Sarah Michelle Gellar — Hollywood actress, best-selling author and co-founder of the organic baking company Foodstirs — and we talked about all things organic food.

* Sonny Perdue was confirmed yesterday as Secretary of the USDA, and Politico reported two interesting tidbits in his Congressional hearings.

* One, he wants the USDA to continue promoting organic and local food. Two, that he told Senators Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) that he would pay their states a visit if confirmed.

* A Vermont visit would be quite timely because no state has been more vocal about the requirement of soil in organic. Additionally, Vermont was the first state in the country to pass a “no strings attached” GMO-labeling bill.

* The big thing we all will be keeping an eye on is whether Sonny Perdue will move forward with the Organic Animal Welfare Standards, approved two days before President Obama left office. Republican lobbyists and Big Ag will be putting the full-court press on Sonny Perdue to delay, alter or kill these standards altogether.

* I’ll leave you on a very high note today. Late last night, I got word from John Foraker, President of Annie’s, who said that the $550,000 to save Ron Finley’s ‘Gangsta Garden’ in South Central LA was successfully raised and that the property will be purchased either today or tomorrow.

* Massive thanks to the awesome and inspiring John Foraker for spearheading this important cause.

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