By Melody Meyer, vice president of policy and industry relations, United Natural Foods (UNFI)
I can smell it; spring is just around the corner. While some areas of the country are still under winter’s frigid grip, elongated English cucumbers are flourishing in shade houses near the Mexican border. Tantalizing heirloom tomatoes, curvaceous eggplant and thick zucchini are growing in various mediums of soil and soil-less technologies. They fill our winter plate. Innovative farmers have figured out how to maintain vigorous populations of microbes using natural fertilizers to cultivate food in containers and other soil-less conditions (sweepingly named Bioponics). For the time being, they can market their produce as certified organic if they follow the organic regulations. All this could change in 2017.
While the “to soil or not to soil” debate rages on, does the organic community not have bigger fish to fry?
What Does Bioponic Mean?
The term bioponics is used to describe a broad spectrum of ways to grow food outside of the outermost crust of the earth’s surface. They can have roots that dangle immersed in microbial active, nutrient rich water solutions (hydroponics), or they can be cultivated adjacent to brimming tanks of edible fish, whose waste is transformed into plant nutrients (aquaponics). The third category is container growing which includes everything from an assembly of small pots to large expanses of urban concrete filled with soil. They all utilize solid and liquid fertilizers in various growing mediums that ensure healthy biological activity. The entire spectrum of organic bioponic growing methods maintains biological activity, saves water and conserves land use. Only approved organic fertilizers are used, and toxic inputs are never allowed.
Why is This a Hot Topic Now?
The definition of organic on the home page of the National Organic Program (NOP) reads: “Organic is a labeling term that indicates that the food or other agricultural product has been produced through approved methods that integrate cultural, biological and mechanical practices that foster cycling of resources, promote ecological balance, and conserve biodiversity.” It does not mention soil as an absolute requirement. This definition is the source of years of confusion and debate. Today it’s the hottest topic -- threatening to tear the organic community asunder.
The National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) is a federal advisory board tasked with making recommendation to the NOP on changes to the organic regulations. Since 2003, various NOSB members have deliberated on these water-based systems. Some boards supported the use of bioponics and container growing as organic and some recommended prohibiting it.
The NOP never issued a final written rule prohibiting bioponic growing methods so for the past several years, operations using hydroponic and container growing methods have been certified organic. Family farmers and urban crofters have built thriving businesses growing produce across the organic foodscape using bioponic methods. Consumers across North America enjoy these succulent organic fruits and vegetables in the midst of winter’s howl.
The “Movement” and the “Trade” At Odds
For many organic pioneers, the roots of the organic movement began with passion, a small plot of tillable land and a local co-op buyer. Times were different – simpler, with no internet, filled with ideology and hope. The soil was the movement and it propelled us with its ‘silent spring’ of messages to clean up our agricultural act.
Times progressed and our movement developed a trade. The 1990 Farm Bill enlisted USDA and organic regulations went into effect. Farmers planted more organic acres and incorporated innovative ways of growing. Organic farms got bigger and more efficient — sometimes leaving the smaller old-timers behind. The “movement” and the “trade” took different positions on this expansion and metastasized into two very different growths.
Today the “movement” and the “trade” are deeply polarized over many issues. The hottest one is the question of whether bioponic production should be allowed in organic production. Is organic only defined by plants growing in the outermost crust (the soil) of the earth’s surface? Can organic embrace new innovative ways of growing food that conserve water and land? Should new production methods which foster microbial activity and preserve biodiversity bear the USDA organic seal?
Should urban dwellers be able to grow in containers that supply abundant local organic food and create jobs, prosperity and hope? Should the family farm in Arizona or Mexico continue to supply organic warm weather vegetables to the shivering plates of northern dwellers?
The battle rages on and I most likely will get caught in the philosophical crosshairs just asking these questions.
There Are Bigger Fish to Fry
At this moment, while the organic “trade” and “movement” bicker and bash over soil and water, there are bigger more important beasts to be wrestled with.
Conventional agricultural interests and trade associations have the ear of Donald Trump and many in the 115th Congress. Some are not happy with what transpired since the 1990 Farm Bill when the National Organic Program was created. They believe that the government shouldn’t be in the business of running a marketing program -- especially one that they say ‘hoodwinks consumers into thinking the more expensive products are healthier’. They look to the 2018 Farm Bill as a chance to dismantle or to denude the NOP so that it has minimal influence, power or funding.
Is now the time for the organic “movement” and “trade” to lay down their internal battle cry, set aside differences and join forces for the benefit of the organic whole? If we take the time to realize the internal firing squad is as dangerous as the external forces that threaten us, perhaps we may have a chance. If we continue to get stuck in the outermost topsoil of the planet throwing stones rather than envisioning a more expansive inclusive future for organic, I fear all could be lost.
The NOSB will be discussing bioponic growing during their April 19-21 meetings at the Sheraton Denver Downtown Hotel.
With the Organic Produce Network, I urge you to participate in this discussion. You need to act quickly and sign up by March 30 to make a comment. Let us find a middle ground at this meeting that allows for respectful, open debate.
A bigger more formidable fish needs our undivided attention.