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Led by Patagonia, Organic Food Companies are Inserting Themselves into the Hydroponics Controversy

At the biannual National Organic Standards Board meeting (NOSB), which is set to convene in Jacksonville, Florida from October 31st to November 2nd, organic farmers are flying in from all over the country to protest against hydroponics being allowed in organic. With a critical board vote expected to take place at this meeting, the stakes are very high.

Yet, within the last week, their fight against hydroponics has been strengthened by the support and emergence of another group – some of the most influential organic food companies in the industry.

On her company’s blog and on LinkedIn, Patagonia CEO and President Rose Marcario made the case that even though hydroponic has real importance to society, it is not organic and needs to have its own certification.

The Patagonia CEO took it a step further when she drafted a letter to the NOSB, which says, among other things:

– We concur with the original intent of the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990, which stated, “an organic plan shall contain provisions designed to foster soil fertility, primarily through the management of the organic content of the soil.”

– Including hydroponically-grown produce in the organic label would be misleading and create confusion for customers. We believe that organic production should require soil, and we think customers believe that, too.

– Hydroponic should have its own certification outside of the USDA organic certification.

– We ask that you defend the organic standard and not allow hydroponically-grown produce to have the USDA organic seal.

Though it has only been a few days and the effort is just beginning, numerous other organizations have signed on to this letter as well. As of this morning, they include Amy’s Kitchen, Nature’s Path, Dr. Bronner’s, Nutiva, Thrive Market, Foodstirs, REBBL, Yellow Barn Biodynamic, Rodale Institute, Demeter USA, White Oak Pastures, and Kunoa Cattle.

“We heard about the vote from Lisa Stokke (Co-Founder of Food Democracy Now!) and thought that we should get involved and help rally CEOs in the organic community. Many people don’t understand what is at stake here, but our customers are interested in this issue. That is why we put out a customer education piece on it. With this letter, we are hoping to influence the NOSB members about hydroponics in organic. It is important that these members understand that they represent organic food CEOs, and they ought to listen to CEOs who truly care about their customers,” said Rose Marcario.

“When it comes to the Organic Trade Association (OTA), they tend to favor less transparency rather than more. Customers want radical transparency,” she continued.

I reached out to both Driscoll’s and Wholesum Harvest, widely regarded as the two largest operators of and advocates for hydroponics in organic, to get their take on the Patagonia letter. Driscoll’s has yet to comment, but Wholesum Harvest did respond.

“We’ve seen the letter Patagonia is circulating. It seems to only apply to hydroponic production. As we are not growers who utilize a hydroponic system, we feel it would be inappropriate to comment on the issue,” said Jessie Gunn, Marketing Manager at Wholesum Harvest.

(From the company’s website, a picture of Wholesum Harvest’s growing system .)

According to The Packer, however, Wholesum Harvest testified before a U.S. Senate committee in July, expressing support for containerized and hydroponic growing methods.

Lisa Stokke is not surprised by Wholesum Harvest’s admission that it doesn’t grow hydroponically.

“Organizations such as the OTA and even CCOF (California Certified Organic Farmers – an organic certification agency) are manipulating the issue and are purposely attempting to confuse NOSB members. They are distorting the definition of what is hydroponic and what is a container growing system. This provides cover for the big hydroponic operators to technically say they are utilizing a container growing system yet not farming hydroponically, which is false,” she said.

Based on information that I have been hearing, those groups fighting to remove hydroponics from organic are still short of the 10 votes needed.

One critical, and supposedly undecided, vote among the 15 NOSB members is that of Clif Bar. A Clif Bar executive is chairman of the NOSB and carries influence among other members.

I have been in communication with Clif Bar regarding the Patagonia letter, and they have a copy of it. As of this morning, however, I have not received confirmation that they will be signing the letter.

“We hope that companies like Clif Bar, who have representation on the board, stand with us in maintaining the integrity of organic standards,” put forth Lisa Stokke. “Soil is the foundation of organic, and the NOSB now has the opportunity to protect it alongside the organic community.”

Two important pieces of information to remember here:

First, it is not a given that the NOSB will vote on the hydroponics issue in Jacksonville. If 8 of the 15 members believe that more information is needed, they could vote to send it back to the Crops Subcommittee. Again.

Second, even if the NOSB votes to remove hydroponics from organic, this is merely a recommendation to the USDA. The USDA does not have to accept the NOSB’s recommendation, and already this year, Trump’s USDA rejected the NOSB’s recommendation to remove conventional inulin-oligofructose, whey protein concentrate, and Turkish bay leaves for use in organic products.

I will be at the NOSB meeting in Jacksonville later this month and will keep you informed about any developments related to this very important issue.


If you are interested in receiving a copy of the Patagonia letter and/or signing on to it, please contact Phil Graves at Patagonia. He can be reached at:

Have a great day!

Max Goldberg, Founder

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This Week's Quick Hits

Quick Hits

* If you would like to tell the NOSB to keep hydroponics out of organic, the Organic Consumers Association is collecting signatures. You can sign the e-petition here, and action must be taken by midnight, October 11th.

* On Living Maxwell, I wrote about the Regenerative Earth Summit, which will be held in Boulder on November 7-8.

* There is a fantastic line-up of speakers, and it is not expected to take place again in 2018. So, if this is of interest to you or your company, definitely try to attend. I will be there.

* The owner of Miami’s hottest restaurant, Ghee Indian Kitchen, is turning his backyard into a certified organic farm.

* Pressed organic juice chain Juice Press has launched its products into seven NYC-area airport terminals including LaGuardia (Terminals B, C, D), John F. Kennedy (Terminals 2, 5, 8) and Newark (Terminal C). I’m always happy about more organic at airports, particularly if it is pressed juice.

* Lastly, I have spoken to several CEOs of organic food companies who have been severely impacted by the wildfires in Northern California, and our thoughts are with you.

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