"Organic without soil is like democracy without people."
-Vermont Lieutenant Governor-elect David Zuckerman at the Rally In The Valley
A lot has happened since my last update. The last two months have had a number of events that were significant in the movement to keep the soil in the organic:
The Vermont Rally In The Valley
The remarkable press coverage leading up to the NOSB meeting
The St. Louis NOSB meeting
Walter Jehne’s three day Soil Carbon Workshop in Vermont.
The Rally In The Valley was the most encouraging of these. Also the most fun! On the last day of October, 67 farms from five states and over 250 people came together to demonstrate their intent to keep the soil in organic farming. 27 tractors and many marchers traveled from Long Wind Farm to Cedar Circle Farm in Thetford, Vermont to let the world know that organic must be rooted in the soil. Speakers at the Rally included Senator Patrick Leahy, agrarian elder Eliot Coleman, US House Representatives Peter Welch and Chellie Pingree, and a number of farmers. I won’t go into a detailed description here because the Rally was well recorded. Everyone had a smashing good time. It was so nice to be at such a positive gathering. To see the Rally for yourself, there are two videos, one very short (only 9 minutes) and one longer (1 hour).
All the speakers had something important to say, so I highly recommend that you watch the longer video to hear the whole thing. But if time is limited, then the short video gives a good sense of the message and flavor of the event.
The Rally was significant because so many farmers made the effort to show up and speak out. One of the challenges of the USDA takeover of organic certification has been the loss of involvement on the part of the organic farmers. As we have all struggled to make a living in a tough arena, it has been easy to give into a sense of helplessness around maintaining strong standards. At the same time that organic farmers have retreated from the process, the USDA has been profoundly influenced by large corporate farming interests. It is clear to me that “organic” is losing it’s meaning, while we farmers work so hard to actually grow the food. It just isn’t enough for us to farm. And it isn’t enough to choose “organic” in the marketplace. We must also be active in protecting the organic label, and educating ourselves and other eaters about what that word really means.
In the short time between the Rally and the NOSB meeting, there was a wave of national media coverage. Stories appeared in the New York Times (front page), the Boston Globe (front page), All Things Considered, and National Geographic, among many others.
New York Times
This coverage was immediately followed by the NOSB meeting in St. Louis. The meeting was not so much fun. It was a setback for maintaining organic standards with integrity. The simple proposal from the Crops Subcommittee that would have eliminated hydro in organic was sent back for reconsideration. NOP director Miles McEvoy made a statement during the meeting that even if the recommendation allowing hydro was defeated, it would not affect NOP policy. The National Organic Program (NOP) continues to support the certification of hydroponic production, despite clear language in the law (OFPA) that requires that organic farming must be based on the maintenance and improvement of soil fertility. The NOP support of hydro is also in direct opposition to the 2010 NOSB recommendation, as well as most world standards.
The NOP has twisted and turned in their explanations for WHY they support hydro, but their support has been unwavering. As a result, there continues to be an explosion of hydro production around the world receiving USDA certification. For the hydroponic industry, access to the organic market is like being a kid in a candy store. The certified “organic” tomatoes in supermarkets are now mostly hydro. Berries and peppers are not far behind. We learned in the USDA task force that Driscoll’s Berries has over 1000 acres of hydro production in hoophouses in California and Mexico, making them the biggest hydro “organic” producer in the world.
A hostile takeover of the organic standards is taking place.
The NOSB faced a vote on a proposal from their Crops Subcommittee to REVERSE the 2010 recommendation and allow hydroponics, bioponics, and aquaponics. Because this would have overturned the 2010 recommendation, it required a 2/3 majority to pass. This proposal to allow hydro was easily defeated by a 5 to 2 vote in the Crops Subcommittee. This proposal was an opportunity for the NOSB to make a simple declaration of principle. It would reaffirm the 2010 position that organic must be based in the soil. The Crop Subcommittee intended a later recommendation addressing the permitted use of soil in containers.
Leading up to the meeting, there was a major lobbying effort by the hydro companies and their many hired guns. This lobbying went far beyond the NOSB and popular media, and extended to the highest levels of the USDA. We saw some NOSB members faltering under this pressure. At the meeting, only four board members supported allowing a vote on the proposal. And so, following the guidance of the Organic Trade Association lobbyists, action was once again put off indefinitely. Every day continued hydro certification increases their stake in the organic label, strengthening their claim on the market. This strategy has worked well, delaying at every step of the process. There is a de facto NOP moratorium on action around this issue. The war is being won without ever having to make a public decision.
It seems that the NOSB has become a group highly influenced by corporate lobbying. I am not suggesting that board members are selling their votes, but rather that they are human, and are swayed by the power politics of big money. We have to remember that retail hydro sales in the US are estimated to exceed $200,000,000. OTA board member Melody Meyers of UNFI, testifed at the NOSB that her company’s hydroponic "organic" sales exceeded $50,000,000. Double that number to get the retail value. And that was a single wholesaler! Amid silly claims that soil advocates are just greedy farmers selfishly protecting their markets, we are getting to see whose markets are really being protected.
Davey Miskell and I traveled to St. Louis from Vermont to join the many people who came to testify about soil in organic. Food Democracy Now! presented a petition with over 12,000 signatures to reject hydroponics. Cornucopia Institute presented 1400 proxy letters from farmers and eaters demanding that soil stewardship be a requirement for organic certification. Clearly, the people numbers were on the side of the soil.
Although some smaller hydro growers testified at the NOSB meeting, three quarters of US hydro sales go to only 3 or 4 “farms”. There is an enormous concentration of money, power, and influence in a very few hands. And that is the problem we all face in these struggles. It seems that their money is running the ship right now.
Six years ago the NOSB recommendation that hydroponic had no place in organic passed 14 to 1. That vote was in keeping with international standards, the federal law that created the NOP (the Organic Foods Production Act), and the traditional beliefs of organic farmers. But in St. Louis we lost a vote to reaffirm that basic principle that organic farming is based on maintaining and improving the fertility of the soil. How could the foundational principles of organic farming have changed so radically in six years?
At the end of the NOSB meeting, a resolution was passed 12 to 0 with 2 members abstaining. It read, “It is the consensus of the NOSB to prohibit hydroponic systems that have an entirely water based substrate." This was quite a significant resolution, As it showed consensus in rejecting the notion that hydroponic growing can become organic simply by "adding biology" to a water solution. Perhaps we can now move forward on that point, at least.
There was another proposal to amend that resolution to include the phrase, “or are wholly dependent on liquid fertility inputs”. This amendment failed as it was a tied vote. It means that the NOSB refused to acknowledge that “hydroponic” is not limited to plants that grow in water. It appears that this point will be the battleground in the future.
The rest of the world knows very well that the thousands of acres of conventional greenhouse tomatoes, peppers, and cucumbers growing in substrates such as rockwool (think fiberglass insulation) or coconut husks (think shredded door mats) are “hydroponic”, even though they aren’t growing in water. This point seems to be confusing only for the Organic Trade Association and the NOSB. Certainly, the hydroponic growers themselves are not confused. What makes a system hydroponic is not the substrate (the stuff in the pot that the roots sit in), but how the fertility is delivered to the plant. In a hydroponic system, the fertility is simply added to the tank mix and supplied to the plant in the irrigation. There are now “organic” fertilizers being used that are mostly “plant available” due to extreme processing. The 16-0-0 hydrolyzed soy protein being used in hydroponics has little similarity to soy meal. It acts a great deal like a synthetic nitrogen fertilizer. In a real organic system, the fertility is a result of the marvelously complex soil community. One soil microbiologist describes the soil community, with all its microbial life as the gut of the plant where its food is digested.
In a hydro setup, the substrate is mostly biologically inert. The reason that coconut husks are popular for hydroponic growing is because they are so resistant to breaking down. They are kind of like cedar shavings. The truth is you could even have a hydroponic system taking place in real soil. If you grow a large tomato plant in a small pot of soil, you will still have to provide most of the nutrition hydroponically. There isn’t enough soil in that pot to feed a mature plant for long.
What started as a debate has now become a takeover. The companies testifying in support of hydro to the NOSB include Miracle Gro (famous purveyor of chemical fertilizers) , Nature Gro (major supplier of substrates for conventional growers), head of marketing for Nature Sweet tomatoes (1400 acres of conventional greenhouses), Houweling’s Tomatoes (250 acres of conventional greenhouse tomatoes), Organic Trade Association (top lobbyists for the biggest hydro “organic” players in the world), and Driscoll’s (biggest conventional berry company in the world and over 1000 acres of hydroponic berries being certified as organic).
Welcome to the “New Organic Community.” The reason these companies are so interested in organic certification is very simple: They want to cash in on the organic market. Their interest would be a wonderful development IF it was matched by a willingness to embrace actual organic principles and growing practices. But all of these companies are in agreement that the soil shouldn’t matter to organic farming. Nature Gro’s testimony even complained about the requirement for at least 20% compost in the growing mixes. They want much less compost! Mostly these companies avoid the “H” word, and insist that they are “containerized” growers rather than “hydroponic”. Their biggest lobbyist, the Organic Trade Association, insists that growing a berry plant in a container filled with coconut coir, and totally fed by liquid fertilizer is not hydroponic. It is amazing what some people will say for money! One of the leading hydro spokespeople from the task force is quoted in the NY Times as saying, “Soil to me as a farmer means a nutrient-rich medium that contains biological processes, and that doesn’t have to be dirt.” Really! In the Hydro Newspeak, soil doesn’t contain dirt, and soilless growing isn’t hydroponic. This would be laughable if they weren’t running the show. As Representative Chellie Pingree warned at the Rally, more money is spent lobbying Capitol Hill each year for the food industry than for the defense industry.
To read a chilling editorial on the possible future of organic certification, see this editorial called “Organic Board Should Grow Up” from the leading magazine of the conventional produce industry: Packer editorial
They are coming for us.
The final event that has been significant this month was a workshop in Vermont on the Soil Carbon Sponge. It was a three-day tour de force by Australian soil microbiologist Walter Jehne. Walter spent day one explaining the biological basis of climate change. He carefully took us on a tour of how agricultural mismanagement over the last two thousand years has been the driving force behind climate change that is only now becoming apparent. As we have burned the carbon out of our soils through tillage and overgrazing, the water cycle has been compromised, and the results are the constant increase of deserts and the constant loss of water into the high haze that surrounds our planet. Burning of fossil fuels is very significant, but even if stopped tomorrow, the CO2 levels will still inexorably rise as CO2 is released by the steadily warming oceans. The best survival strategy is to put the carbon back into the ground by keeping the earth covered with plant matter, and following organic practices. Then a whole cascade of positive things happens, and a virtuous cycle for the planet can be recreated. The planet gets cooler, the soil once again gets true fertility, and the people eating food from that fertile soil can get true health.
This workshop showed the ways in which our growing understanding of the science of climate change, soil microbiology, and human health are all strong affirmations of the core principles of organic farming. The more we learn, the more impressed I am with the early beliefs of the organic pioneers. They had it right.
As California struggles to cope with the expanding climate disaster, they are embracing systems like hydroponics to compensate for a broken climate system. The real answer is to rehydrate California through improved farming practices. This is an enormous challenge, but it is doable. Our challenges are more about human motivation than about technological sophistication.
To better understand the effect of microbiology on climate, I highly recommend checking out Walter’s website: Healthy Soils Australia
For a good short report on Soil and Carbon, visit: Center For Food Safety Soil & Carbon
Going forward there will be another NOSB meeting in Denver in April. There will be an effort to redefine "hydronic" as "container grown". This is the crudest attempt to win by confusion. It is important that we speak up. I will send out an announcement in the Spring letting you know what is happening and asking you to submit written testimony (which means submitting a short comment on the USDA website).
I apologize for the length of this letter. A lot is happening in the world right now that is of real import for all of us. As the USDA gives strong support to the "healthy soil" movement, they are also allowing healthy soil to be pushed out as the basis of the National Organic Program. Please forward this letter to your friends to let them know what is happening. Our only chance is to show up and make ourselves be heard. In Europe, they have stayed strong. Help us to join the rest of the world to keep the soil in organic.