Definition of ‘organic’ still vague (Editorial)

(Nov. 15, 2016) There is a squabble going on in the food industry, which is worthy of some attention here.
It pits the organic soil production farmers against those offering hydroponic (or aquaponic) produce and labeling it Certified Organic.
The National Organics Standards Board meets Nov.16 in an attempt to settle the dispute. It probably will not.
Here’s the background:
The Cornucopia Institute, an organic industry watchdog, contends the USDA has quietly allowed a flood of hydroponically-produced fruits and vegetables, largely imported, to be illegally labeled and sold as “organic.”
The Wisconsin-based institute has filed a formal legal complaint against some of the largest agribusinesses involved in the practice and their organic certifying agents.
The Cornucopia complaint specifically targets two of the giants in U.S. hydroponic production, the organic berry giant, Driscoll’s, and a major tomato, cucumber, and bell pepper producer, Wholesum Harvest. Both agribusinesses are certified by California Certified Organic Farmers and Quality Assurance International, respectively.
The controversy will come to a head on Nov. 16, when the NOSB is expected to vote on whether hydroponic (soil-less) operations should be legalized for organic certification.
The vote comes six years after the NOSB initially reaffirmed that hydroponics and aquaponics should be prohibited under the organic label.
Cornucopia alleges the USDA has disregarded that prohibition, and has allowed “over 100 foreign and domestic soil-less operations to become Certified Organic, creating unfair competition for soil-based U.S. growers.”
“Astute consumers have turned to organics to procure fruits and vegetables for their family knowing that certified farmers do a better job of stewarding the land by nurturing the complex biological ecosystem in the soil, which creates nutrient-dense, superior food,” says Mark Kastel, senior farm policy analyst at The Cornucopia Institute. “Hydroponic and container systems rely on liquid fertilizers developed from conventional crops or waste products. Suggesting that they should qualify for organic labeling is a specious argument.”
There are these considerations in the dispute. There is federal law governing organics production.
Do container-grown crops that rely primarily on added soluble nutrients meet basic tenets of the federal law governing organic production?”
One of the core organic tenets in the law is restoring and building soil fertility.
NOSB contends that organic farming is defined by “proper soil management through tillage, crop rotation, and manuring, and therefore soil-less systems should be excluded from organic certification.”
Pioneers of the organic movement are leading the “Keep the Soil in Organic” movement and are witnessing firsthand, they say, the displacement of domestic organic produce with hydroponic versions.
These organic farmers argue that organic agriculture has always been entirely centered on the biological complexity found in properly managed, fertile soil.
Hydroponic growers, organic farmers assert, “produce crops in sterile surroundings and douse plant roots with liquid nutrients that can never begin to duplicate the biological complexity of fertile soil.”
The issue needs to be resolved.
Organic growers say that organic hydroponic produce, whether imported or grown by giant agribusinesses in the United States, is not identified in the marketplace.
Consumers, thus, have no way of knowing if the berries, tomatoes, peppers, or cucumbers they are purchasing are truly organic, that is, grown in soil as it is traditionally known. Passionate consumers of organic — and they are multiple — are paying a premium price for their product.
Can it qualify, in their opinion, as organic if it’s fed by the contents of the water swirling around its roots or must it have been nurtured by the ingredients of the soil?
Those devotees of organic deserve an answer. They vote every day in the marketplace with their dollars.