The Hydroponic Threat to Organic Food

USDA’s organic certification of hydroponically grown produce is an example of conquest and colonization.

In the last seven years there has been a quiet redefinition taking place in the USDA National Organic Program that oversees organic standards. Large scale industrial producers have insinuated themselves into organic certification to transform what the green and white label stands for.

Original organic was based on a simple equation:

Healthy soil = healthy plants = healthy animals = healthy planet.

a hydroponic farm
Hydroponics is a system that relies entirely upon processed inputs to feed the plants. The old organic adage is, “Feed the soil, not the plant.” The guiding principle of conventional agriculture is: “Feed the plant, not the soil.” Obviously, hydroponic production is the most extreme example of this philosophy. Photo by ACME/Flickr

This equation leaves out the discussion of WHY these things are true, but it is a good roadmap for what organic agriculture is all about. The first given is always “healthy soil.” As we look deeper, we cannot study these parts separately, because plants and animals are integral parts of healthy soil system. No plants means no healthy soil. The same is true with animals. Soil and plants coevolved for 350 million years, and neither can be healthy in isolation from the other. The dance between plants, microbial life, and animal life in the soil is necessary for all.

Western soil science got started with the work of German chemist Justus von Liebig (1803-1873). From Liebig’s perspective, soil was a passive storage bin for plant nutrients. However, in Charles Darwin’s 1881 book The Formation of Vegetable Mould through the Action of Worms, these ideas were challenged by a vision of the soil as a living ecosystem. But Liebig’s viewpoint dominated Western soil science until the 1980’s when the role of organisms in soil formation became better understood. Liebig himself turned away from his “storage bin” paradigm in the later part of his life, but our agricultural sciences continued to follow his earlier writings.

If we take away plants, soil can no longer be living. Plants provide the energy via photosynthesis for all animal and microbial life in the soil. These photosynthates are provided first as root exudates that feed the fungi and bacteria in exchange for which they gain the minerals that in turn feed the plants. The visible life forms are as important as the invisible microbial community. Soil animals go from burrowing woodchucks and gophers to snails, slugs, and elongate animals such as earthworms, flatworms, nematodes, soil mites, springtails, ants, termites, beetles and flies. All of these species together create a community that is often called the soil food web.

Organic farming is based on protecting and enhancing this web of life. By cultivating the diversity of life, we create a stable ecosystem in the soil. Diseases or pestilence are symptoms of a loss of balance. So the organic farmer’s first job is to enhance the diversity of life in the soil community. This is done by providing materials and techniques to help build a soil carbon sponge.

Conventional agriculture is based on a very different strategy of control and simplification. By making systems that are as simple as possible, it becomes easy to control the inputs and outputs. The inputs are processed offsite to provide plant available nutrients. “Soil” becomes a device for holding roots. It is thus easier to make these systems replicable, much like the model of a McDonald's restaurant. McDonald’s simplifies their systems as much as possible to serve the same hamburger to every customer around the world. In such a system the expertise is contained in the corporate staff who design the processes and provides the raw materials. The problem is a loss of nutrition in the final product. McDonald’s serves lots of calories that soothe customers’ cravings, but they fail at providing a healthy diet. The end result is the phenomena of customers who are simultaneously malnourished and obese.

Similarly, in a conventional agriculture system, the yields are high per acre, but, as Vandana Shiva has said, the yield of health per acre is low. As it turns out, we are part of that co-evolution of soil and plants and animals. Human nutritional needs are complex and beyond our full understanding at this point. But organic farmers believe that by embracing those natural systems, we can feed ourselves well, even if we never fully understand why.

As Einstein once said, there is a simplicity that comes before complexity that is worthless, but there is a simplicity beyond complexity that is priceless.

These simplified conventional systems have been promoted by an industry that profits by selling remedies to the unintended consequences of such crude simplicity. Their high yields are unsustainable without the liberal use of poisons. Plants grown in a soil devoid of biological complexity are very vulnerable to disease and insect attack. And of course, the more we use such poisons, the less healthy the soil becomes, so more pesticides are needed, and on and on.

In livestock production, the epitome of conventional agriculture is a Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation (CAFO) where animals are isolated from the land. Their food is grown far from where they live, so their manure is lost to the production system. There is no honoring of Albert Howard’s Law Of Return: “what comes from the soil must be returned to the soil.”

In vegetables and berries, the epitome of conventional agriculture is hydroponic production. Hydroponics is a system that relies entirely upon processed inputs to feed the plants. The old organic adage is, “Feed the soil, not the plant.” The guiding principle of conventional agriculture is: “Feed the plant, not the soil.” Obviously, hydroponic production is the most extreme example of this philosophy.

The practices of organic farming are ancient, but not all traditional farming systems could be called organic by the definition of such pioneers as Albert Howard. Some traditional agriculture was not sustainable and ultimately led to the downfall of civilizations. But organic principles have been practiced in the intensive farming of southeast Asia for over 4000 years. They were learned by Howard in India and subsequently taught in the West. Since then, soil science has confirmed Howard’s ideas to an astonishing degree. Every day we learn more and more about how soil communities function and about why such a system need not depend on pesticides to thrive. Every day we learn more about the connections between the soil microbiome and our own microbiome.

From this logic we derive a conclusion that is important to remember: that the absence of pesticides in a successful organic system is the result of how we farm, not the definition of it.

The organic movement has long believed that food grown in a healthy soil is the foundation of human health. In recent years it has become clear that agriculture is also deeply involved in the climate crisis, both as the problem and as the solution. Conventional agriculture contributes directly to the destruction of the living soil, leading to the spread of deserts and the warming of the planet. We have the skills and understanding to farm without chemicals in a way that will build a soil carbon sponge that can cool our warming planet. Our impediment to achieving this is social and political, not technical.

The inclusion of hydroponics in organic certification is thus not an example of innovation and improvement. It is an example of conquest and colonization. It is simply a hostile takeover of organic by economic forces. It has been widely resisted by the organic community, but the USDA continues to embrace hydroponics as organic just as they embrace CAFOs as organic. Their redefinition of organic is in opposition to the law and to international norms. The US once again becomes the rogue nation throwing away our mutual future so somebody can make a buck.

At this time, huge quantities of hydroponic berries, tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, and greens are being marketed as “Certified Organic” in partnership with the USDA. And there is no way of identifying what is hydroponic in the organic label.

The Real Organic Project was created to challenge this process. Our efforts include the creation of an add-on label so that real organic farmers and eaters might be able to find one another in a deceptive marketplace. To learn more, please visit us at realorganicproject.org.

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