The Progressive


A project of Common Dreams

For Immediate Release
Contact: Mark Kastel, 608-625-2042

Industry Watchdog: USDA Allowing Illegal "Organic" Produce Production

Corporate Interests Lobbying to Approve Hydroponics — Growing without Soil


An organic industry watchdog contends the USDA has quietly allowed a flood of hydroponically-produced fruits and vegetables, largely imported, to be illegally labeled and sold as "organic." This produce is generally grown under artificial lighting, indoors, and on an industrial scale. The Wisconsin-based Cornucopia Institute announced they had filed a formal legal complaint (PDF) against some of the largest agribusinesses involved in the practice and their organic certifying agents.

The controversy will come to a head in mid-November, when the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) is expected to vote on whether or not hydroponic operations (growing without soil) should be legalized for organic certification at their semiannual meeting in St. Louis. This vote comes six years after the NOSB initially reaffirmed that hydroponics and aquaponics should be prohibited under the organic label.

Disregarding that prohibition, the USDA has allowed over 100 foreign and domestic soil-less operations to become certified organic, creating unfair competition for soil-based U.S. growers. The U.S. is an outlier in international commerce as most countries prohibit the organic certification of soil-less hydroponic produce, including the 28 countries of the European Union (EU), Mexico, Japan, and Canada.

"Astute consumers have turned to organics to procure fruits and vegetables for their family knowing that certified farmers do a better job of stewarding the land by nurturing the complex biological ecosystem in the soil, which creates nutrient-dense, superior food," said Mark Kastel, senior farm policy analyst at The Cornucopia Institute. "Hydroponic and container systems rely on liquid fertilizers developed from conventional crops or waste products. Suggesting that they should qualify for organic labeling is a specious argument."

The Cornucopia complaint specifically targets two of the giants in U.S. hydroponic production, the organic berry behemoth, Driscoll's, and a major tomato, cucumber, and bell pepper producer, Wholesum Harvest. Both agribusinesses have production in the U.S. and Mexico and are certified by California Certified Organic Farmers (CCOF) and Quality Assurance International (QAI), respectively.

In preparation for the upcoming vote, the USDA's National Organic Program released a report by a task force it convened on hydroponic and aquaponic production. The 16-member "ponics" task force was charged with looking at the mounting controversy on whether these soil-less systems align with the USDA organic regulations or not. The task force report explores the debate over whether container-grown crops that rely primarily on a few added soluble nutrients meet basic tenets of the federal law governing organic production. One of the core organic tenets in the law is restoring and building soil fertility.

"Many organic stakeholders were furious that a task force was formed in the first place," said Cornucopia's lead scientist, Linley Dixon, PhD. "The 2010 NOSB recommendation clarified that organic farming is defined by proper soil management through tillage, crop rotation, and manuring, and therefore soil-less systems should be excluded from organic certification. Establishing the task force was viewed as a delaying tactic, a favor for domestic and international agribusinesses that are currently lobbying to overturn the current prohibition and legalize what they are already doing," added Dixon.

Sam Welsch, a hydroponics task force member and president of the accredited organic certification agency OneCert, Inc. stated, "Even the most liberal interpretation of the 2010 recommendation would not allow the certification of any container grown crop that provides more than 50% of its fertility with liquid nutrients."

Pioneers of the organic movement, including the "Agrarian Elders" and other diversified farmers, are incensed by the rise of "organic" hydroponics and are leading the "Keep the Soil in Organic" movement. They are witnessing firsthand the displacement of domestic organic produce with hydroponic versions.

These organic farmers argue that organic agriculture has always been entirely centered on the biological complexity found in properly managed, fertile soil.

Iconic farmer and author, Eliot Coleman, of Maine explains, "The phrase 'organic hydroponic' is an oxymoron--a figure of speech in which contradictory terms appear in conjunction. Hydroponic growers produce crops in sterile surroundings and douse plant roots with liquid nutrients that can never begin to duplicate the biological complexity of fertile soil."

In addition, organic hydroponic produce, whether imported or grown by giant agribusinesses in the U.S., is not identified in the marketplace. Consumers have no way of knowing if the berries, tomatoes, peppers, or cucumbers they are purchasing are truly organic.

The Cornucopia Institute has engaged the public by distributing a proxy letter to organic stakeholders (available as a download through the hydroponics link in the projects tab on their website). The organization says it has already received thousands of originally signed letters which they will hand deliver to the NOSB at their St. Louis meeting starting November 16.

"There is a higher authority than the USDA, or even the federal courts, in these matters," said Kastel, "and that's the community of organic farmers, and their loyal customers who vote every day in the marketplace with their dollars. They are clearly voicing their opposition to the faux organic production that is flooding the marketplace."

The Cornucopia Institute, a Wisconsin-based nonprofit farm policy research group, is dedicated to the fight for economic justice for the family-scale farming community. Their Organic Integrity Project acts as a corporate and governmental watchdog assuring that no compromises to the credibility of organic farming methods and the food it produces are made in the pursuit of profit.