The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Pioneers of organic farming are threatening to leave the program they helped create


The pioneers of the sustainable farming movement are mourning what they call the downfall of the organic program, following a Wednesday night vote by a group of government farming advisers that could determine the future of the $50 billion organic industry.

At issue was whether a booming generation of hydroponic, aquaponic and aeroponic farms — which grow plants in nutrients without using soil, frequently indoors — could continue to sell their produce under the “organic” label.

In a series of narrow votes, an advisory board to the U.S. Department of Agriculture voted to allow the majority of these operators to remain a part of the organic program, dealing a blow to the movement's early leaders.

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Organic pioneers have argued that including hydroponic produce under the label has undermined the integrity of the program they fought decades to establish, and at a time when it is already under intense scrutiny. Some have said they will consider leaving the USDA-regulated program entirely.

“This was the Hail Mary pass to save the National Organic Program, and they didn't catch it,” said Dave Chapman, a longtime organic tomato farmer who lobbied to have hydroponics banned from the organics label. “They did incalculable damage to the seal tonight. It's just going to take them a while to realize it.”

Wednesday's recommendation, issued by the National Organic Standards Board, came in four parts.

The board voted to keep out aeroponic farming, which grows plants — typically herbs and leafy greens — suspended in the air with their roots exposed. But it voted to allow hydroponics, which grow plants in water-based nutrient solutions, and aquaponics, which combine hydroponic systems with farmed fish operations.

The board also declined to tighten its restrictions on container growing, a variation on hydroponics that involves raising plants in containers filled with a mixture of organic matter, water and nutrients. That system has been adopted by a number of major organic berry growers, such as Driscoll’s and Wholesum Harvest.

Since 2000, the National Organic Program has strictly regulated which foods can be called organic, and how organic foods are grown and raised. Those standards are typically based on the recommendations of the NOSB, an advisory body composed of farmers, environmentalists and representatives from the organic industry.

In a 2010 vote, NOSB recommended a ban on virtually all types of soilless growing. But in an unusual departure, the USDA continued to certify hydroponic and aquaponic farms, claiming that NOSB had not adequately considered the breadth of the industry.

Now that the board and the department are in agreement, the future of hydroponics in the organic program is much more certain, said Marianne Cufone, the executive director of the Recirculating Farms Coalition, which represents hydroponic and aquaponic growers.

“I think this sends a powerful message that they're embracing change in agriculture,” Cufone said. “That the [organic program] wants to be inclusive, not exclusive.”

This approach has pained old-school organic farmers, who have spent the past seven years arguing that soilless systems undermine the main principles of that program. When that movement emerged in the first half of the 20th century, they argue, it promised a version of agriculture that not only reduced the use of certain fertilizers and pesticides, but that contributed to the health of the soil and the rest of the environment.

During NOSB testimony Tuesday, several organic farmers protested the certification of hydroponic farms, wearing T-shirts that said “Save the Organic Label.” At recent rallies in Hanover, N.H., and Burlington, Vt., protesters held signs with slogans such as “keep the soil in organic.”

“This notion that organic farmers are stuck in the past, or that they’re a bunch of Luddites hanging on to the way things used to be — that’s a misnomer,” said Cameron Harsh, the senior manager for organic and animal policy at the Center for Food Safety. “Soilless systems are just incompatible with the organic program and its regulations.”

But in a series of close 8-7 votes Wednesday, the NOSB appeared to disagree. Instead, it sided with hydroponic growers, many of whom have spent several years and several thousand dollars acquiring their organic certification.

Their advocates have argued that soilless farming is consistent with the goals of the organic program: It utilizes organic fertilizers and cuts down on pesticide and water use — often to levels much lower than those on land-based organic operations. Because hydroponic farms are frequently built indoors, they are said to provide opportunity to urban growers who could not otherwise access agricultural land.

“Don’t get me wrong — I love going to the farmers market,” said Matt Barnard, the chief executive of the indoor farming start-up. Plenty, which grows organically certified greens and herbs. “It’s just that the farmers market supplies something like half of one percent of the fresh fruits and vegetables in the U.S.”

“What we are doing,” Barnard added, “is just as organic as anyone else.”

The early leaders of the organic movement say they aren't sure what “organic” means anymore, however.

The hydroponics debate comes at a moment when the organics program has been rocked by high-profile scandals, from fraudulent imports to suspect dairy feedlots, and after a period of sustained growth.

Organic sales topped $47 billion in 2016, according to the Organic Trade Association, representing 5 percent of all U.S. food sales. That growth has not been driven by idyllic family farms, either. Increasingly, the organic market is dominated by industrial brands that look little different from their conventional counterparts.

Chapman likens his struggle now to that of a parent confronting a rowdy teenager. He spent years growing the movement, he said, and loves it despite its flaws. On Wednesday night, he left the NOSB meeting with a group of other old-school organic farmers, determined to discuss how, and if, they could still support their problem child.

“The question is, do we abandon the National Organic Program and find a new way to identify ourselves?” Chapman asked. “It’s a genuine question. I don’t know. We feel powerless.”

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