When it comes to organic food, it’s buyer beware. Fake organics abound these days, be it organic eggs laid by hens cooped up in gigantic factory farms, organic beef and milk from cows raised under anything but humane, pastured conditions, or hydroponic vegetables grown under artificial lighting in conventional coconut waste or ground up plastic, fertilized with a liquid slurry of conventionally grown (and hence pesticide-laden) processed soybeans.
Indeed, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) organic label has become increasingly watered down over the years. With the inclusion of hydroponics in the organic standards, it’s at risk of becoming altogether moot.
On one side of this fight you have family-scale, soil-based organic farmers whose focus is producing nutrient-dense food while simultaneously improving soil health. On the other you have corporate, industrial-scale hydroponic growers whose produce is actually lower in nutrients1 and does nothing to improve soil conditions on farms.
Organic Versus Hydroponic
According to section 7 CFR 205.2052,3 of USDA organic regulations, an organic grower’s crop rotation plan must maintain or improve soil organic matter. The main legal argument against the inclusion of hydroponics in the USDA’s organic standards is that since hydroponics do not involve the use of soil at all, it cannot qualify for organic certification in the first place.
Despite such clear-cut definitions of what constitutes organic farming, a large number of hydroponic operators were still quietly granted organic certification4,5,6 under the lead of Miles McEvoy, former deputy administrator of the USDA’s National Organic Program (NOP).7 In 2010, the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) had voted “no” on allowing hydroponics as the organic rules clearly did not support their inclusion.
McEvoy, who disagreed with the panel’s decision, allowed hydroponic growers to apply for certification anyway. On November 1, the NOSB voted on whether these hydroponic growers would be allowed to remain part of the organic program, and despite passionate opposition by soil-based farmers and organic pioneers, the board chose to reverse their previous position, and not to stand in the way of granting organic certification to hydroponic growers.
The NOSB, now stacked with agribusiness-affiliated representatives, also decided to allow aquaponics, where fish and plants are raised together in a synergistic cycle, despite the fact that there are no organic standards for this type of production. However, the NOSB voted to bar aeroponics from organic certification. Aeroponics involves neither soil nor nutrient-rich water, relying on moist air to nourish the plants’ roots instead. The fallout from this November 1 vote has been nothing if not dramatic.
Co-author of Organic Standards Says Organic Certification of Hydroponics Is Illegal
Jim Riddle, steering committee chair of the Organic Farmers Association (OFA),8 who in the early ’90s co-wrote the Organic Trade Association’s organic standards, had this to say about hydroponics being allowed to be certified organic:
“The labeling of hydroponic products as ‘organic’ is illegal. The Organic Foods Production Act (OFPA), in section 6513(b)(1), states, ‘An organic plan shall contain provisions to foster soil fertility…’ Further, OFPA 6513(g) states, ‘An organic plan shall not include any production or handling practices that are inconsistent with this chapter.’ Soilless production systems are inconsistent with OFPA.
They do not comply with numerous sections of the NOP Final Rule, as enumerated in the Crops Subcommittee’s recommendation. There is one relevant rule provision that the Committee overlooked. Section 205.601(j)(6) allows the use of micronutrients, with the following annotation, ‘Soil deficiency must be documented by testing.’
This does not mean that micronutrients may be used if soil is deficient from the system. No, it links soil to the allowance for the use of micronutrients. The OFPA and rule sections mentioned above, and in the Committee’s recommendation, use the words ‘shall’ and ‘must,’ not ‘should’ or ‘may.’ These are mandatory provisions, and they cannot be ignored.
In addition, soilless, hydroponic systems do not comply with the NOSB Principles of Organic Production and Handling, the first sentence of which reads, ‘Organic agriculture is an ecological production management system that promotes and enhances biodiversity, biological cycles, and soil biological activity.’
In the wake of the NOSB’s decision to certify hydroponics as organic, many organic pioneers have threatened to abandon USDA organic certification altogether. Another alternative brought forth by Mark Kastel, cofounder and codirector of the Cornucopia Institute,9 is to develop an alternative label to distinguish between soil- and nonsoil-based organics.
Authentic Organics Are Being Squeezed Out by ‘Fauxganics’
The Cornucopia Institute is actively researching filing a lawsuit to reverse the USDA’s “illegal” certification of hydroponic/soilless growing. In the meantime, the final arbiter of what is and is not acceptable as organic is you. If you refuse to buy organic foods raised in factory farms or grown without soil, true organics may still be salvageable. The Cornucopia Institute is also collecting proxy letters 10 to be formally presented to corporate officers at national grocery chains.
This includes John Mackey at Whole Foods Markets, Amazon’s Jeff Bezos and W. Craig Jelinek at Costco, just to name a few of the retailers that sell fake organics, thereby promoting the elimination of real, authentic organic foods, grown and raised with animal, human and environmental health equally in mind.
The proxy letter calls on these companies to use store signage that informs consumers about the differences between true organics and conventional food produced with hydroponic (sometimes also referred to as container growing), aeroponic and aquaponics technology.
Considering the fact that organic certified hydroponic produce is far less expensive to grow, and hence demands a lower retail price, hydroponically grown vegetables are rapidly taking over the organic produce market — even though they don’t even qualify as organic in the first place.
Are You Paying a Premium for Fake Organic Milk and Eggs?
The proxy letter also urges the listed grocers to “adopt a sourcing policy to only market organic milk and dairy products from brands that procure their raw milk from farmers that treat their cows respectfully and at a scale where it is conceivable they can meet the spirit and letter of the organic law that requires maximizing grazing and pasture consumption.”
At present Target, Costco and Walmart source their storebrand organic milk from Aurora Dairy, which had been found to willfully violate 14 tenets of the organic standards. For starters, evidence gathered by Cornucopia and The Washington Post suggests Aurora confines most of its cattle most of the time, even though organic standards call for cattle being free to roam on pasture. Not surprisingly, testing of the fatty acid profile of Aurora Dairy milk revealed it matched conventional, not organic milk.11
While the appeal to retailing CEOs is gaining traction, protect your family by consulting Cornucopia’s organic dairy scorecard, separating organic high-integrity dairy brands from what they call the “factory farm imposters.” Lastly, the proxy letter calls for the creation of a corporate plan to switch suppliers for private label eggs to producers that allow chickens outdoor access as required by federal organic laws. Eggland’s Best, for example, is to organic eggs what Aurora is to organic dairy.
One of its gigantic factory farms houses an estimated 180,000 to 200,000 birds per barn, or more than three hens per square foot of floor space, and these birds never set foot outdoors.12 This despite the fact that organic standards require organic livestock to have ample access to the outdoors and to engage in natural behavior, and are supposed to get both direct sunlight and fresh air.
The Cornucopia Institute’s “Scrambled Eggs” report and organic egg scorecard, which took six years to produce, ranks 136 egg producers according to 28 organic criteria.
Retailers Aid and Abet Organic Fraud
You can sign the Cornucopia proxy letter to grocery chain leaders below, and I would encourage you to do so, as no further progress on these issues can be made through the USDA or the NOSB. It’s become quite clear that the USDA is dancing to the tune of agribusiness lobbyists, not organic farmers and consumers.
As noted by the Cornucopia Institute in a recent stakeholder letter, “It’s time to draw a line in the sand. On the front lines, the businesses that have the ability to say no to organic fraud are the natural/specialty foods and grocery retailers. Many are willing co-conspirators in the corporate sellout of true meaning of organics.”
It seems market pressure — “hitting them where it hurts,” meaning their financial bottom line — is the only way to incentivize these retailers to help clean up the organic industry and its standards rather than merely profiting from organic fraud. Any company that decides to honor these consumer demands stands to gain a significant market advantage. As noted by the Cornucopia Institute:13
“Top retailers like Whole Foods Markets, Costco, Target, Safeway, Walmart, and Kroger must be convinced to provide choices in their grocery aisles for authentic, nutrient-dense organic food grown in rich, carefully stewarded soil. If the nutrients are not in our soil, they are not in our food, and they are not in our families!
Factory farm meat, dairy and egg production, and fruits and vegetables grown without soil rich in humus result in inferior flavor and nutrition … Corporate agribusinesses and factory farms are watering down the meaning of organics. They could not operate without retail representation. They are squeezing out ethical, family-scale farmers and their marketing partners. Real organic farmers, and their loyal customers, are being cheated.”