Young lettuce plants growing in hydroponic system rows

I can smell it; spring is just around the corner. While some areas of the country are still under winter’s frigid grip, elongated English cucumbers are flourishing in shade houses near the Mexican border. Tantalizing heirloom tomatoes, curvaceous eggplant, and thick zucchini are growing in various mediums of soil and soil-less technologies. They fill our winter plate. Innovative farmers have figured out how to maintain vigorous populations of microbes using natural fertilizers to cultivate food in containers and other soil-less conditions (sweepingly named Bioponics). For the time being, they can market their produce as certified organic if they follow the organic regulations. 

While the “to soil or not to soil” debate rages on, does the organic community not have bigger fish to fry?

What does bioponic mean?

The term bioponics is used to describe a broad spectrum of ways to grow food outside of the outermost crust of the earth’s surface. They can have roots that dangle immersed in microbial active, nutrient-rich water solutions (hydroponics), or they can be cultivated adjacent to brimming tanks of edible fish, whose waste is transformed into plant nutrients (aquaponics). The third category is container growing which includes everything from an assembly of small pots to large expanses of urban concrete filled with soil. They all utilize solid and liquid fertilizers in various growing mediums that ensure healthy biological activity. The entire spectrum of organic bioponic growing methods maintains biological activity, saves water, and conserves land use. Only approved organic fertilizers are used, and toxic inputs are never allowed.

Why this a hot topic now?

The definition of organic on the home page of the National Organic Program (NOP) reads: “Organic is a labeling term that indicates that the food or other agricultural product has been produced through approved methods that integrate cultural, biological, and mechanical practices that foster cycling of resources, promote ecological balance, and conserve biodiversity.”  It does not mention soil as an absolute requirement. This definition is the source of years of confusion and debate, and today it’s the hottest topic, threatening to tear the organic community asunder.

The National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) is a federal advisory board tasked with making recommendation to the NOP on changes to the organic regulations. Since 2003 various NOSB members have been deliberating on these water-based systems. Some boards supported the use of bioponics and container growing in organic, and some more fickle boards recommended prohibiting it.

Throughout the ensuing chaos, the NOP never issued a final written rule prohibiting bioponic growing methods. As a result, organic certifiers spent the last several years certifying organic operations using hydroponic and container growing methods. Family farmers and urban crofters have built thriving businesses growing produce across the organic foodscape using bioponic methods. Consumers across North America enjoy these succulent organic fruits and vegetables in the midst of winter’s howl.

The “movement” and the “trade” at odds

For many an old fart (like me) the roots of the organic movement began with passion, a small plot of tillable land and a local Co-op buyer. Times were different then, simpler with no internet, filled with ideology and hope. The soil was the movement and it propelled us with its silent spring of messages to clean up our agricultural act.

Times progressed, and so the movement developed a trade. The 1990 Farm Bill enlisted the USDA, and the organic regulations went into effect. Farmers began planting more organic acres and incorporated fresh innovative ways of growing into organic production. Organic farms became bigger and more efficient—sometimes leaving the smaller old timers behind. The “movement” and the “trade” took different positions on this expansion and metastasized into two very different growths.

Today the “movement” and the “trade” are deeply polarized over many issues, and the hottest one is the question of whether bioponic production should be allowed in organic production. Is organic only defined by plants growing in the outermost crust of the earth’s surface? Can organic embrace new innovative ways of growing food that conserve water and land? Should new production methods that foster microbial activity and preserve biodiversity bear the USDA organic seal?

Should urban dwellers be able to grow in containers that supply abundant local organic food while creating jobs, prosperity, and hope? Should the family farm in Arizona or Mexico continue to supply organic warm weather vegetables to the shivering plates of northern dwellers?

The battle rages on, and I most likely will get caught in the philosophical crosshairs just asking these questions.

There are bigger fish to fry

At this moment, while the organic “trade” and “movement” bicker and bash over soil and water, there are bigger more important beasts to be wrestled with.

Conventional agricultural interests and trade associations have the ear of Donald Trump and many in the Congress. Some of them are not happy with what transpired since the 1990 Farm Bill when the National Organic Program was created. They believe that the government shouldn’t be in the business of running a marketing program, especially one that they say hoodwinks consumers into thinking the more expensive products are healthier. They look to the 2018 Farm Bill as a chance to dismantle or denude the NOP so that it has minimal influence, power, or funding.

Is now the time for the organic “movement” and “trade” to lay down their internal battle cry, set aside differences, and join forces for the benefit of the organic whole? If we take the time to realize the internal firing squad is as dangerous as the external forces that threaten us, perhaps we may have a chance at this. If we continue to get stuck in the outermost topsoil of the planet throwing stones rather than envisioning a more expansive inclusive future for organic, I fear all could be lost.

A bigger more formidable fish needs our undivided attention.

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About The Author

Melody Meyer's picture

Melody is the Vice President of Policy and Industry Relations for United Natural Foods (UNFI). In this role she is responsible for communicating and educating all stakeholders on critical organic issues. Her Blog covers a range of organic and sustainable food issues.

She is the executive director of the UNFI Foundation which is dedicated to funding non-profit organizations that promote organic agriculture Melody serves as Secretary of the Board of Directors for the Organic Trade Association

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