What do you think of when you see an "organic" label? For many, the comforting lettering, usually green, means you can trust that the item was grown utilizing all-natural, sustainable farming methods and techniques that are not too dissimilar to the ways crops have been grown for thousands of years. Most assume that the organic label means the item is healthier. More nourishing. Environmentally friendly.
What if that label doesn't mean what you think it means?
Today, roughly 50 farmers and advocates took to the streets of Downtown Jacksonville outside the Omni Hotel where the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) is meeting this week. The demonstrators, many wearing "Protect Organic" T-shirts, gathered to advocate for what they see as truth in organic labeling. A New Orleans-style jazz band played a spirited tune while the group marched to The Landing for a series of short speeches by folks who came from as far away as the West Coast and New England to urge the NOSB to ban crops grown via hydroponic, aquaponic and aeroponic techniques from being labeled as organic.
Tom Barrett, who manages certified organic Allen Farms, came to Jacksonville from Westport, Massachusetts to lobby the board. "There's no other country in the world that lets hydroponic growers to be labeled organic," he said. Barrett is concerned that allowing such crops be labeled organic will open the door to imports that don't comply with their own country's organic standards to be shipped to the U.S. and suddenly become "organic."
"It's disrespectful as a farmer and as an organic consumer," he said.
Barrett stressed that he isn't opposed to other growing techniques, a view that many echoed, but he is concerned that it would be misleading and "diluting the organic label" to certify crops that aren't grown in the ground. He and others also said it could be cost-prohibitive for organic farmers, who already face high costs to produce their crops, to let more cheaply grown hydroponic produce get that coveted organic label, thus driving down prices.
"I won't be able to compete on a certified organic label," he said.
At The Landing, a series of speakers hit on similar themes.
Dave Chapman, the Vermont organic farmer who discovered that hydroponic crops were being certified organic and subsequently founded Keep the Soil in Organic, has traveled to similar rallies all over the country. "A lot of people are looking to us to defend organic," he told the crowd noshing on-no surprises here-an organic lunch.
Some speakers expressed frustration that this was even an issue, others focused on long-term sustainability issues associated with non-organic farming techniques, others on health. Pesticides and other 'inputs,' aka fertilizers, many manufactured with chemicals, are known to exacerbate, sometimes even potentially cause, health issues. "As a mom, I've always really counted on organic," said Lisa Stokke, cofounder of Food Democracy Now.
A few said outright that hydroponics farmers should get their own label. Most seemed less concerned about small operations that produce a few vegetables for personal consumption or sale at a farmers market, and more fixated on big, bad agribusiness, namely Driscoll and Wholesum Harvest, which have massive hydroponic certified-organic operations pouring tons of strawberries, tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, etc. into the market and selling them to what advocates believe are unsuspecting consumers. One said that he's never heard anyone talk wistfully about how much they look forward to that first hydroponic tomato.
Robert Crocker, owner of local company Urban Gardens of Jax, Jacksonville's Hydroponic Store, said that health concerns often drive his customers to turn to hydroponics. "A lot of my customers, they're cancer patients, going through chemo, or suffering bad rheumatoid arthritis," he said. Crocker believes that the environmental impact of hydroponics or aquaponics is lower than that of traditional agriculture "because of the amount of water that's not used to irrigate the fields.... We reuse the water over and over again."
"I can grow plants without any chemical fertilizers, without any dirt ... and we sell organic fertilizers for hydroponics," Crocker said.
Much of the debate rests on how one defines 'organic.' To organic farmers who've spent years, sometimes decades, building soil that will sustain healthful harvests year after year, and dealt with the painstaking, expensive process of seeking organic certification, letting an aquaponics or hydroponics farmer, who can just dump the water if it gets contaminated with non-organics and start over (dirt farmers have to wait three years before they even qualify to be labeled organic), receive the same certification is being disingenuous with consumers, whom they believe assume 'organic' means something is grown in the ground. But for an aquaponics farmer-who grows crops on a far smaller geographic footprint with less water, no non-organic pesticides or fertilizers-prohibiting them from being labeled organic may seem unfair.
The board will have to weigh several questions, namely: Is 'organic' merely a question of whether pesticides, GMOs and chemical fertilizers have been used to produce the crop? Or does labeling something organic also equate that it was grown in the ground?
Farmers advocating against labeling crops grown with aquaponics, aeroponics and hydroponics as organic may have something of an ace up their sleeve: Climate change. See, soil is second only to the oceans in terms of how much carbon it stores, according to the European Environmental Agency. The European Union estimates that 75 billion tons of carbon is stored in soil. To put that into context, in 2006, the EU's carbon emissions were 1.5 billion tons.
Land-use changes, such as industrial farming, clear-lot development and draining wetlands, cause soil to lose carbon. A 26-year study published in the journal Science earlier this month found that heating soil also causes it to release carbon at a faster rate. Organic farming not only draws carbon from the air and puts it back into soil, it also keeps soil cooler through the use of mulch and planting cover crops, which is believed to help slow the release of carbon.
The role of organic farming in reducing the effects of climate change could make a difference if one views organic labeling as indicative of not only what goes into growing a crop, but also the whether the method contributes to the long-term health and survival of humans and the earth.
Tomorrow, NOSB is scheduled to vote whether organic crops must be grown in the soil. Regardless of what it decides, it seems likely that the organic soil farmers are not going to go quietly into that good night.
"Maybe we need to take out the pitchforks and keep herding the NOSB in the right direction," said John Bobbe, executive director of OFARM (Organic Farmers' Agency for Relationship Marketing).