Keep The Soil In Organic began as a petition started by Dave Chapman, the owner/grower at Long Wind Farm, and David Miskell of Miskell’s Premier Organics. It has since grown into an international movement of organic farmers and eaters who are trying to keep the organic standards true to their roots. Three years back we were dismayed to discover that a lot of hydroponically grown produce was receiving organic certification. It was then being sold in stores with no way of identifying that it was grown without soil. This led to a conversation with many other farmers around the world. A petition was started to show the USDA that there were indeed many people who cared deeply about this issue.
There was a long process of learning to understand how the organic standards are created within the USDA. The way it works is that a group of federal bureaucrats from the USDA (called the National Organic Program, or NOP) is responsible for defining and administering organic standards for the United States. They are guided theoretically by an advisory committee of 15 people (called the National Organic Standards Board, or NOSB) representing organic farmers, scientists, environmentalists, and consumers. They make informed recommendations to the USDA. The USDA has sometimes taken a long time to respond to a recommendation, but never before have they actually opposed a recommendation of the NOSB, which is charged with the task of representing the organic community in the process. The NOSB is hopefully a balanced group of committed, well-informed people, who have taken their responsibility of guiding the federal organic standards very seriously. They do a great deal of good research and hold public hearings to get all points of view, before making a recommendation. They only make recommendations on subjects requested by the NOP.
In 2010 the NOSB (National Organic Standards Board) submitted a recommendation to the NOP (National Organic Program) that soil-less vegetable production should NOT be certified as organic. (See below). Until that time the issue of soil-less growing had never been addressed by the NOP, so the NOP asked the NOSB to come up with a recommendation. The NOSB voted 12 to 1 (with 2 abstentions) to prohibit hydroponic production. They wrote out a carefully worded, well thought out document, making their arguments clear. The recommendations of the NOSB are almost always eventually accepted by the NOP, but in this case the NOP has not acted on the NOSB recommendation, and five years later, the NOP continues to ALLOW hydroponic vegetable production to be certified as organic. The NOP has not offered any guidance to certifying agencies on this matter, nor any explanation. They have not held public hearings. Many certifying agencies in the US are now refusing to certify hydroponic operations as organic.
Presently, the vast majority of the “hydroponic organic” produce sold in this country is grown in either Mexico, Canada, or Holland. ALL THREE OF THESE COUNTRIES PROHIBIT HYDROPONICALLY PRODUCED VEGETABLES TO BE SOLD AS ORGANIC IN THEIR OWN COUNTRIES. Mexico, Canada, Japan, New Zealand, and 24 European countries, (including Holland, England, Germany, Italy, France, Belgium, and Spain) all prohibit hydroponic vegetable production to be sold as organic in their own countries.
The USA is alone
The NOSB has formally recommended that the United States join the international community in a common definition of organic produce. The USA is virtually alone in the world in its decision to allow “soilless organic.” In essence, a small section of the USDA is redefining "Organic". The consequences of this go far beyond the US, creating pressure from hydroponic growers in other countries to redefine organic there as well.
What is hydroponic farming?
Hydroponic growing is a system in which all the nutrients are supplied to the plants through an irrigation system. Almost anything can be used as a rooting medium, as the nutrition is supplied through amendments to the irrigation water. In some hydroponic systems, there is no rooting medium at all, and the roots rest in a tray over which enriched water runs. It is ingenious, and it works well, which is why virtually all the conventional greenhouse vegetables are grown this way. But it is NOT organic. There is no reliance on the microbial activity of the soil to provide the biological diversity that is the basis of organic growing. The old adage for organic farming has always been, “Feed the soil, not the plant.” Hydroponic growing is based on the opposite belief, “Feed the plant, not the soil.” We are not arguing with whether either system can be effective. Most of the world's vegetables grown in greenhouses are now grown hydroponically. Only the organic growers are following a different, more difficult path.
The stated NOP standard emphasizes that organic growing is based on caring for the soil. (See below), but their refusal to prohibit soil-less growing defies their own standard.
Make your voice heard
Now is the time for the community of organic growers and consumers to make their position clear to the National Organic Program. If the NOP is unwilling to support traditional organic standards, the trust we have placed in the Federal government will have been violated. Belief in the organic standards will be seriously undermined, and all of us will lose something we have worked so hard to accomplish. Please sign one of the petitions, and share this site with all of your friends. We are working hard to convince the USDA that Americans do support the traditional meaning of organic and that it must listen to the advisory board that was set up to guide it.
The NOSB Recommendation to the NOP on soil-less production: READ HERE
“Hydroponics, the production of plants in nutrient rich solutions or moist inert material, or aeroponics, a variation in which plant roots are suspended in air and continually misted with nutrient solution, have their place in production agriculture, but certainly cannot be classified as certified organic growing methods due to their exclusion of the soil-plant ecology intrinsic to organic farming systems and USDA/NOP regulations governing them.”
NOP Standard on soil:
§205.203 Soil fertility and crop nutrient management practice standard.
(a) The producer must select and implement tillage and cultivation practices that maintain or improve the physical, chemical, and biological condition of soil and minimize soil erosion.
(b) The producer must manage crop nutrients and soil fertility through rotations, cover crops, and the application of plant and animal materials.
(c) The producer must manage plant and animal materials to maintain or improve soil organic matter content in a manner that does not contribute to contamination of crops, soil, or water by plant nutrients, pathogenic organisms, heavy metals, or residues of prohibited substances.
Message from David Miskell of Miskell's Premier Organics in Charlotte, Vermont
I too am one of VT Organic Farmers’ original certified organic farms. Since beginning as an apprentice with Eliot Coleman in 1973, my farming goal has been nurturing a healthy soil and soil life to result in healthy plants. While at Eliot’s farm I was lucky to devour his expansive organic farming library and read many research and experiential backups to the above organic farming goal.
I was one of the skeptics when USDA’s National Organic Certification Program (NOP)was established. Looking at past USDA history my response was, “Why let the foxes guard the chicken house?” I held out some hope due to the establishment of the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) as it was supposed to act as a public hearing and research group on organic farming certification issues, a public sounding board to the NOP.
Miles McEvoy, NOP’s Deputy Administrator, claims that soilless organic is an innovative growing technique that should be certified organic. My work and visit experience on many of the most successful organic farms in the U.S. and Europe differs and leads me to the conclusion that soil based organics blends soil life, non-synthetic minerals, organic residues and physical care of the soil and surrounding lands to create an innovative balanced environment.
Do we know all the mysteries of this process? NO, but we are learning. Growing soilless plants with force fed organic nutrients is a step backward. Perhaps it is a technological innovation, but not an organic innovation. Call it what you want, but it is not organic.