Preserving the Organic Identity

A nutrient film technique hydroponic system. The nutrient solution bathing the roots has grown some good looking kale, but do you think it should be called organic? Eric Sideman photo

By Eric Sideman, Ph.D.

Can you imagine losing your identity through no fault of your own? We all have an image of ourselves and identify with a group or a place in society. Sometimes one word can evoke that image. “Organic” was one of those words. Lots of us imaged ourselves as organic farmers or gardeners. Few of us have changed our image, but the word “organic” is being changed into a marketing slogan with a much diminished image. Can we save it, or should we find a new word, or do we care about a label anymore?

The word “organic” is being changed seriously by the USDA National Organic Program (NOP), which regulates its use with respect to agricultural products, as the NOP allows use of the term “organic” with some production systems that were never meant to be considered organic. The system I find most troubling to be considered organic is hydroponic production. I have nothing against hydroponic production; I simply think it is misleading and insolent to allow such a production system to be called organic farming.

Some Background

Organic growing was defined by J. I. Rodale and his staff as “a system whereby a fertile soil is maintained by applying nature’s own law of replenishing it – that is, by adding organic matter to preserve humus rather than using chemical fertilizers.”  (Rodale, J.I., et al., “The Encyclopedia of Organic Gardening,” 1971) Over the years this was simplified to a slogan, “Feed the soil, not the crop.” This definition does a fine job of reflecting the founding principle of organic farming: that the soil system should be the source of nutrients for the crop through its decomposition of complex organic molecules to simple, plant-available nutrients.

Organic farming arose in the mid-20th century in response to recognition by its pioneers of the degradation of soils on farms practicing “modern” fertilizing techniques. They recognized the downward spiral of soil structure and fertility as synthetic N-P-K fertilizers became the sole source of crop nutrients. More troubling to them was the decline in nutrition of food for livestock and people. Sir Albert Howard and many other pioneers of the organic movement wrote extensively about the importance of maintaining the soil with varied sources of recycled organic matter (compost, livestock manure, green manures, crop debris, etc.). Research then, and even more now, shows that the biological activity of decomposing these materials builds soil structure and maintains reservoirs of fertility far beyond applications of the three soil macronutrients (N-P-K).

During the 1960s the counterculture began to link the organic farming movement with the wider environmental movement, and organic gained increasing recognition among the general public. The new generation of farmers that arose from what is now termed the “back-to-the-land” movement played a role in this growing recognition. These farmers marketed their products at farmers’ markets, from their own farm stands and to the growing number of health food stores. As demand grew for organic food, and farmers began bringing food from their communities to health food stores in the cities, the distance between producer and customer grew. Third-party certification emerged as a way to assure customers, now far removed from their farmers, that the products they purchased were truly organic.

In 1971 Organic Farming and Gardening Magazine, published by Rodale Press, initiated an organic certification program based upon standards developing at that time in Europe. In 1972 MOFGA ran its first organic certification program based on the Rodale Organic Certification Program. California Certified Organic Farmers followed in 1973. Many more certifiers organized during the next decade, and by the 1980s farmers across the country could find an organic certifier close to home. Although minor variations existed in allowed practices and materials, the standards used by each certifier were remarkably similar. Farmers had to submit a plan to the certifier that detailed what practices and materials were used on the farm to produce the crops to be called organic. Of course organic standards did not allow most synthetic pesticides and fertilizers; the real crux of the standards, however, was not what was prohibited but what was required. Organic certification standards required on-farm practices and use of materials that fostered soil health by managing crop residue, using livestock manures, composting, cover cropping and adding natural rock powders. In other words, these early organic certification programs reflected the farming practices suggested by the pioneers of organic farming.

Here Come the Feds

Those same farming practices were later reflected in the federal regulations. Writing the Organic Foods Production Act (OFPA) was a grassroots effort. Although not everyone involved with the organic movement in the 1980s supported the idea of a federal regulation, those writing the regulation made a tremendous effort to include representatives from organic certifiers from coast to coast. As a result OFPA represents the standards that guided organic production before its passage.

The NOP did a good job of carrying this over when it wrote the regulatory text that implements the law, especially the sections on managing the soil. Both OFPA and the USDA organic regulations were written with the understanding that the foundation of organic farming is soil management.

It Is All in the Interpretation

Those who write laws and regulations do their best to be clear, I think, but those who can benefit from reading rules one way or another sometimes do their best to interpret them in favor of personal gain. With hydroponic production, some producers and their certifiers have said that the section of the NOP regulation that says growers “must manage soil fertility” does not apply to them, and the NOP allows this. So we now have a situation similar to the one that prompted a federal organic standard in the first place: Certification standards differ from place to place. Some certifiers (including MOFGA Certification Services LLC) believe that care of the farm’s soil is the foundation of organic farming; others say that food produced in vats of nutrient solution or containers of nearly sterile media can be called organic simply if no synthetic pesticides or fertilizers are used.

The NOSB Fails to Clarify the Hydroponic Issue

The problem of living in a democracy is that the majority rules. Some people have learned to get their way by swaying the majority. This was clearly demonstrated at the fall 2017 NOSB meeting where the NOSB Crops Committee tried to clarify the hydroponic issue by recommending that it would prohibit labeling hydroponic production as organic. It would also regulate production of crops grown in containers so that they meet organic principles in order to be labeled as “organic.” The committee’s recommendation failed by a vote of 7 to 8.

Francis Thicke, chair of the NOSB Crops Committee, put it best in his closing comments as he ended his term on the NOSB: “… And we have a hydroponics industry that has deceptively renamed ‘hydroponic’ production – even with 100 percent liquid feeding – as ‘container’ production. With their clever deception they have been able to bamboozle even the majority of NOSB members into complicity with their goal of taking over the organic fruit and vegetable market with their hydroponic products.”

Now What?

Some of us who grow organic food think of ourselves as farmers who are taking care of our farm, maintaining the soil and all the rest of our agroecosystem. The organic label helps us in the marketplace by eliciting such a picture for the consumer. We like the way they picture us. Also, the label should bring up for the consumer clear standards of production that are based on the principles of organic production. We seem to have lost that. So now a new movement is asking for a word to replace “organic,” which seems to have been redefined, or for an add-on label to “organic” that includes the traditional principles. Some think we don’t need a label at all. MOFGA is monitoring these movements and remains in the forefront of protecting organic farmers as we know them. If you have an opinion, let us know.

Eric is MOFGA’s organic crop specialist. You can contact him at [email protected].

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