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Can Food Grown Without Soil Be 'Organic'?

Holding a bunch of organic carrots.
By Richard Dahl on March 10, 2020 6:15 AM

When you think of organic food, you probably associate it with dirt.

After all, one of the selling points of organic food is that the soil used to grow it is clean dirt devoid of chemicals.

It's even the law. The Organic Foods Production Act of 1990 sets out the requirements that must be met before a farming operation can qualify as organic and it says this about the role of dirt: “An organic plan shall contain provisions designed to foster soil fertility primarily through the management of the organic content of the soil."

You might be surprised, then, to learn that for the last couple of years the U.S. government has been allowing hydroponic food — food that's grown without soil — to be labeled as organic.

Lawsuit Argues That Hydroponic Can't be Organic

And that's why a group of food activists and traditional organic farmers — the kind with dirty fingers, that is — has filed suit against the U.S. Department of Agriculture for allowing this to happen. While these plaintiffs say they have no problem with the hydroponic industry per se, they do have a problem with the dirtless growers' ability to get an organic label.

There's not much of a price difference between traditional organic and hydroponic food, but the plaintiffs in this suit argue that the hydroponic growers are wrongfully taking a share of the organic market, reducing the traditional organic growers' revenue.

The argument over whether hydroponic food can be labeled as organic has been going on for a long time.

In 2010, the USDA's National Organics Standards Board (NOSB) issued a report concluding that organic operations required soil. Nevertheless, the USDA never developed an official policy on the question and in 2015 created a task force to study the issue. Two years later, the NOSB reversed its earlier position and voted 8-7 that hydroponic operations not be banned from organic certification, and in January 2018 the USDA made it official: Food grown without soil could be labeled organic.

The Center for Food Safety and several organic food producers filed a petition to the USDA seeking to overturn that rule, but the agency denied it.

Hydroponic Growers Also Have Strong Arguments

And that brings us to the current lawsuit, which was filed March 2 in U.S. District Court in San Francisco. It's the first time that someone other than the USDA is being asked to make a decision on hydroponic certification.

It's worth pointing out that hydroponic growers have a strong case to make about their industry. An "indoor vertical farming" company called Plenty, for instance, claims that it can produce 350 times more food in the same amount of space as conventional farming, with 1% of the water.

The federal court, however, may not pay much attention to that kind of information. The court will likely narrow its attention to the letter of the law that established organic certification in the first place.

For what it's worth, the plaintiff's attorney says this should be a no-brainer.

"The federal organic law unequivocally requires organic production to promote soil fertility," attorney Sylvia Wu said in a release announcing the lawsuit. "USDA's decision to allow mega-hydroponic operations that do nothing with soil to be sold as 'Organic' violates the law."

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