Opinion: Failure to prohibit soilless production muddies the water for U.S. organic community

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Opinion: Failure to prohibit soilless production muddies the water for U.S. organic community

By United Natural Foods vice president of policy and industry relations Melody Meyer. This article was originally posted on the Organic Produce Network‘s website and has been republished here with permission.

Organic Produce Network was in Jacksonville to witness one of the most divided National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) meetings in recent history. 

Filled with emotion for organic ideals, both sides defended their position to allow or prohibit out-of- soil organic production methods. After 15 years of debate, hydroponics and container growing will continue to be certified, leaving many soil-only proponents disappointed.

OPN reached out to leaders on both sides of the debate to find out how the organic community will move forward on this shaky ground.

The split vote to prohibit hydroponics and containers displays the uneven terrain of the community.  

While there were 35 materials up for sunset review at the meeting, the overwhelming number of public comments focused on the hydroponics issue.

Many organic stakeholders, including members of the NOSB were torn. Many could understand both sides of the argument, and everyone realized that whatever the outcome, there would be ramifications for the $43 Billion organic food industry. 

The motion to prohibit aeroponics passed with 14 yes and 1 abstention. This prohibition has no real effect because there are few (if any) certified aeroponic operations currently in production. This recommendation will go to USDA Secretary of Agriculture, Sonny Perdue, who will make the final decision.

More significantly the motion to prohibit aquaponics and hydroponics failed to pass, with a majority voting against the motion, 7 yes and 8 no. The motion to restrict how and when nitrogen can be introduced to organic container production also failed to pass, with a majority voting against the motion, 7 yes and 8 no.

Among those voting against the motion to prohibit aquaponics and hydroponics is container and soil grower Theojary Crisantes, vice president of operations for Wholesum Harvest. 

Crisantes said, “The board had a difficult task to vote in a very controversial issue about hydroponics, aquaponics and container production, and I think the final vote reflects much of the feeling of the stakeholders, some pro and some against the issue. I think we need to find common ground among the members of our community to move forward.

“For example,” Crisantes said, “the idea of clear production method labeling under the USDA Organic label, is a common idea that both sides on the issue can agree and we can definitely support that. We must continue to work to develop clear production practices labels and a clear set of production standards.”

Echoing Crisantes thoughts, organic pioneer Phil LaRocca from LaRocca Vineyards said, “I think it was the correct decision. A compromise in labeling would have been the best decision; it would have let the consumer make the choice. I am chairman of the board at CCOF and we have 108 certified hydroponic growers, what were we going to do with these growers?” 

Karen Archipley from Archie’s Acres believes the industry needs to work together in finding ways to increase organic production and the bigger role organics can have in consumer’s lives. We have an opportunity now to stand united against letting any more chemicals into organic.  Also to work as a community to be of assistance to the many farmers hurt from hurricanes, fires and floods, “she said.  

“We can find what unites us, rather than what divides us. Work together on expanding the reach of organic food access and production, while leading the agriculture community in sustainability.”

Those in favor of the motion to prohibit aquaponics and hydroponics remained strident in the wake of the ruling.  Outgoing NOSB member Francis Thicke expressed a call to action“…organic is at a crossroads. Either we can continue to allow industry interests to bend and dilute the organic rules to their benefit, or organic farmers—working with organic consumers--can step up and take action to ensure organic integrity into the future,” he said.

Organic grower Dave Chapman echoed those sentiments, calling the ruling a “sad day for the organic movement.”  He continued, “It was even sadder for the NOP, which has lost its meaning and is now reduced to a marketing brand rather than an agricultural philosophy. The organic movement will continue, as will the NOP, but they will no longer continue as partners.”

Chapman, further said, “The soil-only movement is also known as the organic movement. It is an arrogant belief that the NOP defines what organic means. They only define what "USDA certified organic" means. I believe that people will work to create a new label to represent real organic farming.”

Executive Director of the Rodale Institute, Jeff Moyer, and said while the vote didn’t go the way he had hoped there are opportunities moving forward.  “We'll work to find a positive path forward that addresses the soil in organic. If you are aware of our regenerative organic standard I think linking the two is part of that path for us. We want to give those consumers who want the link to soil a place to purchase organic,” he said.

Lastly, Stephen Walker, Operations Manager at MOSA Certified Organic pondered on a possible way forward for all involved.  “Is it not a common passion that moves both camps? Did we not all seek solidarity, because we know that unity is the best path forward? We all seek to maintain and to continuously improve.

At our best, keep-the-soil and hydro each progressively work toward carbon-neutral solutions for an imminent, much-altered future,’ he said.  “My hope is that this and other common ground unifies our fragments, for the benefit of the important values held by all, for our communities, for our planet. Let's continue to break bread and share our best fruits with our neighbor.”


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