When you hear “certified organic,” what comes to mind? Food you know to be free of toxic pesticides, hormones, and GMOs? A verdant farm-scape tended by a grower dedicated to its ecological health?
The US Department of Agriculture describes organic agriculture, in part, as “practices that support the cycling of on-farm resources, promote ecological balance, and conserve biodiversity. These include maintaining or enhancing soil and water quality [and] conserving wetlands, woodlands, and wildlife …”
By this measure, a hydroponic warehouse devoid of soil and sunlight where plants are raised on a nutrient solution and growers lack any living terrain to care for seems a tad out of step. Yet food grown in this manner is perfectly allowable under current USDA organic certification. The allowance is passionately contested by small organic farmers across the US who have spent decades building a movement, a trusted label, and a customer base around the principles of land stewardship.
What about Canada?
Canadian Organic Standards currently do not allow for soil-less growing, and hydroponic products coming from the US can’t bear the organic seal here. On the flipside, Canadian hydroponic growers are able to sell their produce south of the border where it can receive the organic stamp of approval.
Why all the fuss, you wonder? After all, that hydroponic tomato or strawberry isn’t laden with the chemicals its conventional counterpart may be—and isn’t that really the point of organic?
Not so, say the founders of the movement. What sets organic cultivation apart isn’t simply the substitution of more natural inputs for harmful ones, but a holistic approach to growing food, one that acknowledges that all health stems from the health of the land, and especially the soil.
By isolating plants from a land base, hydroponic systems see gains in efficiency and yield, but we need to be honest about what is lost. We lose an age-old symbiosis between soil, insects, microbes, fungi, sunlight, and plants—in short, food grown within a healthy ecological cycle.
Jean-Martin Fortier is an organic farmer and educator in Quebec who sits on the advisory board of the Real Organic Project. He sees hydroponics as the continuation of a flawed paradigm.
“To bypass the soil, when you’re doing conventional farming using synthetic fertilizers, you’re cutting off the good stuff. And when you’re doing hydroponics, it’s the same logic: we’re not using soil … And that’s really what allows fertility to happen,” says Fortier.
Soil’s influence on health may be more far-reaching than we know, as we’re only recently discovering its role in developing a robust immune system or in delivering nutrients to plants via the soil food web. What happens if we view it as dispensable?
It’s no wonder the hydroponics industry would want in on the organic label, given rising consumer demand. But the start-up costs for indoor growing equipment and technology are prohibitive for the average small grower, giving the advantage to large operators who can create economies of scale.
Small farmers will struggle to compete price-wise with hydroponic producers, especially when the organic label doesn’t allow them to differentiate their growing practices, leaving the buyer none the wiser.
When farmers with intimate knowledge of their local ecology are replaced by artificial intelligence, robots, and lab technicians, we lose eyes and ears on the ground and the know-how that comes with a connection to place.
How do we score on the resilience scale if our food production requires a constant flow of electricity, externally derived nutrients, and seed stock that has had no experience of outdoor conditions?
Small organic farmers argue that it’s not enough for a food product to be chemical-free or equivalent in vitamin C. For Fortier, farming naturally is “about how we want to live our life and what we care about, what’s important. That’s really what this is.”
Meanwhile, a new term is gaining popularity with both growers and consumers: regenerative. Regenerative agriculture shares many of organic farming’s tenets while folding in traditional ecological knowledge and modern science.
It’s a set of holistic on-farm practices that result in improved health and productivity of the land over time—the inverse of conventional agriculture. The practices, which range from diverse cover-cropping to the integration of livestock, work together to add and store carbon in the soil—very handy in an age of climate change.
Estimates vary, but soil managed regeneratively has the capacity to draw down a significant percentage of global CO2 emissions. The Rodale Institute puts that estimate as high as 100 percent.
That could turn agriculture, currently emitting one third of our collective greenhouse gases, into a net carbon sink. Plus, carbon-rich soils with their better water and nutrient storage capacity have important spin-off benefits like greater resilience in the face of fires, droughts, and floods.
Do more good
By regenerative standards, hydroponic growing simply doesn’t qualify because, although it may use less land and water, it doesn’t bring increased diversity of life to a farm and its soil.
Regenerative growers make no apologies for taking up land since, if done right, their footprint on that land is a positive one, a force of repair and renewal. And, let’s not forget, carbon sequestration.
Building a food system that’s clean and fair for both people and planet may include some hydroponics, but be it soil-less, organic, or regenerative, the key is to know what we’re choosing and, thus, what kind of a future we’re shaping as eaters. After all, as the great farmer and writer Wendell Berry says, “eating is an agricultural act.”
How to know?
New labels are emerging to help distinguish the practices behind the products. Here are a few.
|Regenerative Organic Certified||Companies piloting this certification include Nature’s Path, Dr. Bronner’s, and Patagonia.|
|Real Organic Project||Add-on label for certified organic producers committed to additional standards.|
|Certified Regenerative by AGW||Regenerative, though not necessarily organic.|
Fortier advocates “the real answer is just [to] go to your local farmers’ market, and connect with a farmer that way.” Many food producers operate in an organic and/or regenerative manner, but without the certification, and the surest way to know is to ask questions. Don’t be afraid to ask your produce manager, too, about the provenance of the fruits and veggies they’re selling.
Dig deeper [SUBHEAD]
To learn more or actively support soil-focused efforts, check out these resources.
- Regeneration Canada
- Keep the Soil in Organic (Facebook group)
- Regenerative Agriculture Foundation
- Young Agrarians
- Steward (gosteward.com)
- Elaine’s Soil Food Web School
A more sustainable demographic [SUBHEAD]
Compared to their conventional counterparts, organic farms in Canada are more likely to be run by both men and women (as opposed to exclusively men) and the farmers are more likely to be under the age of 55.
This article was originally published in the April 2022 issue ofalive.