Have hydroponics diluted the integrity of organic produce?
- The Cornucopia Institute published a report the nonprofit says exposes a troubling trend in organic production — growing produce without soil and feeding the plants liquid fertilizer. The Wisconsin-based organic industry watchdog has also produced a buyer's guide listing brands marketing hydroponically grown fruits and vegetables as organic.
- Hydroponic produce cannot legally be labeled as organic in several countries, including Canada and Mexico. However, The Cornucopia Institute noted some countries where growers aren't permitted to market hydroponic produce as organic, such as Holland, have been exporting products to the U.S.
- "With hundreds of millions of dollars' worth of venture and equity capital being invested in industrial-scale greenhouses the size of football fields, parking lots filled with thousands of containers with drip irrigation, or 'vertical farms' in cities, consumers and wholesale buyers need a way to discern which certified organic fruits and vegetables are truly nutrient-dense and produced according to the law," Mark A. Kastel, the group's executive director, said in a release.
The Cornucopia Institute has long been critical of the U.S. allowing hydroponically grown produce to be labeled as organic. The group said consumers have no way of knowing which products were grown in soil using traditional farming practices and which were raised in indoor greenhouses without soil because there are no regulations mandating labeling or signage in stores. Also, the group said, major hydroponic brands such as Driscoll's and Wholesum Harvest don't mention production methods on cases or product labels.
"This is especially egregious in the production of organic food, as consumers are willing to pay a premium based on published research indicating true organic management practices result in nutritional superiority and flavor," said Kastel.
This dispute has simmered for years and been considered at many National Organic Standards Board meetings since first appearing on its agenda in 1995. The NOSB has since recommended that hydroponics not be considered as certified organic growing methods because they exclude soil-plant ecology inherent in organic farming systems and relevant federal regulations. However, board members voted in November 2017 not to ban hydroponic and aquaponic crops from organic certification.
The Cornucopia Institute filed a legal complaint about hydroponic organic certification with the U.S. Department of Agriculture in 2016 and petitioned the NOSB last year to adopt EU-like rules requiring organic plants to be grown in soil. Neither strategy has gained much traction to date — hence this report and buyer's guide.
There is no consensus on whether organic produce grown with soil or without it is safer or tastes better. Kastel says research indicates true organic management practices "result in nutritional superiority and flavor." The group also says hydroponically grown produce is often produced inside sealed buildings under artificial lighting and the liquid fertilized used on it "can come from a myriad of different waste products or even highly processed GMO soybeans."
However, Plenty, a Bay Area-based startup that creates vertical indoor farms, asserts that hydroponic practices will help respond to the growing demand for organic produce. The company told the NOSB in written testimony that its growing systems yield up to 350 times more crops than traditional systems, scale up faster and are located closer to consumers.
BrightFarms, a New York-based builder and operator of hydroponic greenhouses, takes the position that its hydroponically grown produce offers a safer and more reliable supply chain than traditional soil-based agriculture. The company, which doesn't have organic certification, also says hydroponic growing systems are more sustainable and save both space and water.
These aspects — and the continuing investment in hydroponic growing systems — make it unlikely the USDA will eventually ban produce grown that way from being organically certified — unless something happens to show the products are unsafe.
Still, it might benefit consumers to know how their organic produce was grown so they could choose whether to buy products grown in soil or without it. Requiring such labeling could be a reasonable compromise to help settle the continuing debate. Whether it would satisfy The Cornucopia Institute is another question, and the group has signaled with this latest report that it's not going to give up on changing current policy.