Whether food production entails acres of mono-crops, livestock shuttled through assembly lines or orderly tracks of plastic pipelines in factory-scale hydroponics spaces, streamlined production techniques tempt food producers to improve on nature, without necessarily assessing the long-term health or environmental costs. Even an apparently benign innovation, like hydroponics, may convey unexpected downsides.
Despite each new agricultural novelty, 17 years after the US Department of Agriculture established the Organic Standards, earth-based farming remains the oldest and most proven method for cultivating organic food. A coalition of farmers, sustainability advocates and foodies wants to keep it that way.
"If we want to protect the integrity of the organic seal, we will have to fight for it," says Lisa Stokke, founder of Next7, which has launched a campaign to raise public awareness about the upcoming decision. Stokke hopes a vote at the October 31 meeting of the USDA's National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) -- which regulates the rules governing organic standards -- will rectify what she calls "the wrongful designation of hydroponically grown foods as organic."
The ruling is particularly critical because soon several pre-Trump members will cycle off the NOSB, to be replaced by Trump-era appointees.
2016 data show that organic foods have burgeoned into a $47 billion industry, year after year increasing more than any other food sector. Over the last two decades, major corporations have briskly acquired organic brands. Ownership gives food conglomerates entrée to the National Organic Standards Board. That means companies like Danone and Clif Bar have a powerful say in organics' future.
According to Dave Chapman, a Vermont farmer and co-founder of an advocacy group called Keep the Soil in Organic, to get the coveted and economically valuable organic label onto its products, the burgeoning hydroponics industry engineered an end run at the NOSB back in 2014. Despite overwhelming feedback to exclude hydroponics from the organic designation, hydroponic companies quietly marshaled their industry allies and gained admission.
Are hydroponically grown foods different from earth-grown organic vegetables in ways that a consumer can't readily discern? To be authentic, must organic produce be earth-grown?
One striking difference between earth-grown and water-grown is how plants receive the nutrients that are later conveyed to us when we eat them. Farmed plants pull up nutrients through their root systems from the soil. Suspended in water tanks, hydroponic foods must be supplied with a manufactured blend of inputs that aims to compensate for the lack of soil-generated nutrients.
"Hydroponic is the perfect crystallization of conventional agriculture. You feed the plant an input," says Chapman. To get a high yield at low cost, fertilizer companies contend that they can calculate the "exact balance of nutrients people need," which Chapman calls "a fantastic arrogance."
"What nature makes is far more complex than anything people could devise," agrees Maya Shetreat-Klein, the pediatric neurologist author of The Dirt Cure. She compares the hydroponic input system to infant formula, which was once substituted for breast milk until doctors found that, "Oops, there are no essential fatty acids in formula," which she says are, "incredibly important for brain development, cancer prevention and so forth.
We think we understand the whole picture until we realize we don't.
"Humans, plants and the organisms in the soil co-evolved for hundreds of thousands of years. They work together. It's a community that interacts and supports each other," Chapman points out. That's impossible to replicate without soil.
"Soil is home to 25 percent of the world's biodiversity because it holds a rich array of organisms, vitamins, minerals, and compounds," says Shetreat-Klein. "In one teaspoon of soil, there is as many organisms as there are people on the planet."
Just as biodiversity is crucial to the earth, the biodiversity of the human microbiome is crucial to health. With the Human Microbiome Project at the NIH, and comparable organizations at Stanford and Harvard, research into the microbiome is the leading edge of health science.
A biologically diverse human microbiome has been found, "important for gut, immune and brain health," Shetreat-Klein says. "We share a microbiome with the plants and foods we eat, and with the plants, animals and people we live with."
We can better trust "what nature provides and what our bodies have evolved with over thousands of years, rather than some kind of chemical amalgam."
Food and Environmental Resilience
Obviously, it's cheaper to feed plants bottled fertilizer than to cultivate farm acreage throughout the seasons. Hence hydroponic greens' lower price point. The growing scale of hydroponic production risks driving organic farmers out of business.
"We need to think ahead 20-30 years," counsels Fred Kirschenmann, a distinguished fellow at the Aldo Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture, and the president of the board of the Stone Barns Center for Food & Agriculture in New York. "In this input intensive food system…mostly all (the inputs) are non-renewable."
As phosphate, rock water and water supplies become depleted, their costs will rise, Kirschenmann predicts. To maintain the food supply, he sees an inevitable transition from industrialized production to regenerative agriculture, in which the soil and the plants feed and renew each other. In addition to producing healthier food, earth-grown organics protect the environment, and produces a more resilient long-term food supply.
"A biologically healthy soil cultivated through organic farming absorbs and retains more moisture," Kirschenmann says. Earth-based organic agriculture also repairs top soil depleted by drought, climate change and poor soil management. Both food supply resilience and protection from climate change depend on the soil, Kirschenmann contends. "For organic to go in a different direction would be a huge mistake."
"If the hydroponic industry wants to develop its own label, they should do it," says Stokke. "But right now they are piggy-backing on the organic label and extracting short-term profits by disrupting a longstanding soil-based ecosystem and food economy."