Future Tense

Organic Food Fight!

A turf battle over soilless farming unearths a dirty secret.

An employee at Green City Growers Cooperative, Inc. works in a hydroponic pond on March 27, 2014, in Cleveland.

Duane Prokop/Getty Images for TakePart.org

Nov. 1 marked an end to the latest chapter in an ongoing organic brouhaha: the argument over whether produce from high-tech, soil-free farms can continue to carry the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s coveted organic certification label.

The debate pitted hydroponic and aquaponic farmers, who grow plants indoors using nutrient-fortified water, against vehement “dirt-firsters,” who claim that the USDA’s certification of soilless farms betrays the very definition of organic farming. The National Organic Standards Board, which advises the USDA on labeling rules, voted 8–7 to continue allowing hydroponic and aquaponic certification, dealing a blow to the dirt-firsters.

To an outsider, this may sound like an arcane regulatory detail. But the verdict has a segment of the organic community up in arms. In the lead-up to the decision, there was name-calling and finger-pointing and general hostility from those who said they believed that soil, and soil health, is central to the organic ethos. The Washington Post reported that, in the wake of the decision, some farmers have even threatened to leave the government-regulated program.

But here’s the thing. There’s the organic ethos, and then there’s the USDA organic certification program, and they’re not the same. One is about farming ecologically, and the other is about making money by farming ecologically. It’s right there in the Federal Register: “This national program will facilitate domestic and international marketing [emphasis mine] of fresh and processed food that is organically produced.” Though there may be a genuine debate about organic philosophy here, it shouldn’t mask the fact that this boils down to one group of farmers who make money from the certification arguing that another group shouldn’t have the same chance.

The whole point of creating the standard was to enable organic farmers to find like-minded consumers willing to pay a premium for their products. Thus far, the program has been spectacularly successful. According to a recent Washington State University analysis, even though organic yields are 10 to 18 percent below those of conventional agriculture and labor costs are higher, organic farms are 22 to 35 percent more profitable than their conventional counterparts. The organic sector has also been growing much faster than the food industry as a whole and in 2016 had $47 billion in sales. Taking away hydroponic farmers’ access to that market would be a “devastating blow,” according to Marianne Cufone, executive director of the Recirculating Farms Coalition, a hydroponic industry group.

Although the rules are complicated, the gist of the standard is this: Farms must “demonstrate that they are protecting natural resources, conserving biodiversity, and using only approved substances.” It’s a broad definition, and hydroponic and aquaponic farms have, so far, successfully made the case that they meet it.

This literal and figurative turf war, however, is complicated by the difficulty various constituents have in reconciling organic and money. The traditional organic ethos brings with it a suspicion of large corporations, of growing at scale, and sometimes of technology itself. The idea that organic certification is about money is at odds with the agrarian pastoral ideal that icons like Wendell Berry, the activist and environmentalist who helped promote the idea of farming as a high-minded enterprise, has espoused. In his writings, he specifically rejects the profit motive. “Why do farmers farm?” he asks in his book Bringing It to the Table. “ ‘Love. They must do it for love.’ ”

Funny how no one ever says that doctors, or barbers, or auto mechanics should do it for love.

I farm, and I can tell you I don’t do it for love. My husband and I grow oysters on Cape Cod, and although we find the physical labor and the idea of food production profoundly satisfying, we would find some other satisfying endeavor if we couldn’t make money at this one. Sustainable farming can’t actually be sustainable if farmers can’t make money doing it.

So there’s a certain irony in the organic farmers who, because of the existence of the organic program, make bigger margins on their products, calling out other farmers who meet the standard and want the same certification as greedy. And there seems to be some of that going on. Longtime organic farmer and proponent Eliot Coleman told New Food Economy’s Joe Fassler that hydroponic farmers are “growing in the spirit of greed.” The Cornucopia Institute, an agriculture and food watchdog group, went so far as to lodge a formal complaint with the standards board asking that it investigate “illegal” hydroponic farms.

In the case of hydroponics, there’s a pretty good case that using less water, fewer pesticides, and growing more food on less land is in the organic spirit. But, if the standard becomes too elastic, the consumer will lose confidence and will stop being willing to pay the premium. At that point, the program loses its reason for being.

According to Danielle Nierenberg, co-founder of Food Tank, a sustainable agriculture think tank with no dog in the certification fight, this ruling doesn’t take us there. “While some have called the NOSB decision the end of organic, I don’t think it’s necessarily apocalyptic,” she said. Many of the hydroponic growers, she said, are trying to grow healthy, sustainable, and delicious food, and make it more accessible and affordable, too.

Nierenberg also suggested that split over hydroponics certification may indicate that it’s time for the USDA to consider certifying other types of production methods. For example, she said, “This might be an opportunity to develop a new label that focuses on regenerative agriculture.

Amen, sister. If more incentives for sustainable farming techniques—improving soil health, protecting the environment, treating farm workers with dignity, tending to livestock humanely, etc.—can be woven into government policy, everybody wins. Establishing certifications that consumers are willing to pay a premium for is one way to do that.

If this very public fight has an upside, perhaps it’s that organic customers can come to terms with the idea that farmers have to make money. Of course, organic farmers care about their environmental impact, but so do conventional farmers. I spend a lot of time talking with farmers in both camps, and when I talk to those who have converted acreage to organic or are thinking about it, they talk about it as a business decision. Can the increased margin on organic crops make up for the costs involved in getting organic certification: the increased risk? The lower yields? The higher labor costs?

If the answer is yes, it’s only because consumers are willing to pay more for the USDA organic certification. At its heart, it’s a program that turns ethos into money, and that is a very good thing.

This article is part of Future Tense, a collaboration among Arizona State University, New America, and Slate. Future Tense explores the ways emerging technologies affect society, policy, and culture. To read more, follow us on Twitter and sign up for our weekly newsletter.