Quantcast
Insights
iStock

Will the Appetite for Hydroponics Profits Uproot the Future of Organics?

By Alison Rose Levy

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. And even an apparently benign innovation, like hydroponics, may convey unexpected downsides.

Despite each new agricultural novelty, 17 years after the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) 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," said Lisa Stokke, founder of Next7, which has launched a campaign to raise public awareness about the upcoming decision. Stokke hopes a vote at the Oct. 31 meeting of the USDA's National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) will rectify what she called "the wrongful designation of hydroponically grown foods as organic." This 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 briskly acquired organic brands. Ownership gives food conglomerates entrée to the USDA's National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) which regulates the rules governing organic standards. Which means that 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 It 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 USDA's National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) back in 2014. Despite overwhelming feedback to exclude hydroponics from the organic designation, hydroponic companies quietly marshaled their industry allies and gained admission.

Nutrient Values

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 the plants receive the nutrients that are later conveyed us when we eat them. Farmed plants pull up nutrients through their roots 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," said 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 called "a fantastic arrogance."

"What nature makes is far more complex than anything people could devise," agreed Maya Shetreat-Klein, MD, 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 said 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 pointed out. And that's impossible to replicate without soil.

"Soil is home to 25% of the world's biodiversity because it holds a rich array of organisms, vitamins, minerals, (and) compounds," said 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, and likely to remain so.

A biologically diverse human microbiome has been found, "important for gut, immune, and brain health," Shetreat-Klein said. "We share a microbiome with the plants and foods we eat, and with the plants, animals and people we live with."

That's she trusts, "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 the hydroponic production risks driving organic farmers out of business.

"We need to think ahead 20 – 30 years," counseled 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 pointed out. 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 it's own label, they should do it," said 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."

Reposted with permission from our media associate AlterNet.

Show Comments ()
Sponsored
Popular

Earth Day Tips From the EcoWatch Team

At EcoWatch, every day is Earth Day. We don't just report news about the environment—we aim to make the world a better place through our own actions. From conserving water to cutting waste, here are some tips and tricks from our team on living mindfully and sustainably.

Lorraine Chow, reporter

Favorite Product: Dr. Bronner's Castile soap

It's Earth-friendly, lasts for months and can be used as soap, shampoo, all-purpose cleaner and even mouthwash (but I wouldn't recommend that).

Keep reading... Show less
Popular
Will Rose / Greenpeace

7 Things You Can Do to Create a Plastic-Free Future

By Jen Fela

We're celebrating a huge moment in the global movement for a plastic-free future: More than one million people around the world have called on big corporations to do their part to end single-use plastics.

Now we're taking the next big step. We're setting an ambitious new goal: A Million Acts of Blue.

Keep reading... Show less
Popular

5 Environmental Victories to Inspire You This Earth Day

Planet Earth is at a crisis point. Researchers say we have to begin reducing carbon dioxide emissions by 2020 if we want to meet the temperature goals outlined in the Paris agreement and avoid catastrophic climate change.

The work to be done can seem overwhelming. A survey published this week found that only 6 percent of Americans think we will succeed in reducing global warming.

Keep reading... Show less
Animals
A fin whale surfacing in Greenland. Aqqa Rosing-Asvid / CC BY 2.0

Iceland to Resume Killing Endangered Fin Whales

By Kitty Block

Iceland seems to be the most confused of nations when it comes to whales. On the one hand it attracts international tourists from all over the world to go out and see whales as part of their encounters with Iceland's many natural wonders. On the other hand it kills whales for profit, with some portion of the kill even being fed to some of the same tourists in restaurants and cafes.

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored
Climate
A.millepora in the Great Barrier Reef. Petra Lundgren, Juan C Vera, Lesa Peplow, Stephanie Manel and Madeleine JH van Oppen

Hope for Great Barrier Reef? New Study Shows Genetic Diversity of Coral Could Extend Our Chance to Save It

A study published Wednesday had some frightening news for the Great Barrier Reef—the iconic marine ecosystem is at "unprecedented" risk of collapse due to climate change after a 2016 heat wave led to the largest mass coral bleaching event in the reef's history.

Keep reading... Show less
Business
Lyft

Lyft Announces Carbon Neutrality Drive

Lyft will make all of its rides carbon neutral starting immediately by investing millions of dollars in projects that offset its emissions, the company announced Thursday.

The ridesharing service, which is part of the We Are Still coalition, provides more than 10 million rides worldwide each week. "We feel immense responsibility for the profound impact that Lyft will have on our planet," founders John Zimmer and Logan Green wrote in a Medium post.

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored
Renewable Energy
Scroby Sands Wind Farm. Martin Pettitt / Flickr

UK Goes 55 Hours Without Coal Power, Breaking Record

Coal, which was once king in Great Britain, has continued its evident decline.

Absolutely zero coal was used to generate energy in UK power stations between 10:25 p.m. on Monday until 5:10 a.m. on Thursday, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. That's a history-making run of 55 hours.

Keep reading... Show less
Popular

Indonesia Calls in the Army to Fight Plastic Enemy

In March, a diver's video of masses of plastic floating off the Indonesian coast went viral. But that plastic often reaches the ocean through the country's rivers, clogging them to such an extent that Indonesia had to call in the army, the BBC reported Thursday.

The BBC spent time on the ground in Bandung, Indonesia's third largest city, and observed a concentration of bottles, plastic bags and styrofoam packaging so large it looked like an iceberg.

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored

mail-copy

The best of EcoWatch, right in your inbox. Sign up for our email newsletter!