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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.
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.
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By Tracy L. Barnett
Sources reviewed this article for accuracy.
For Sicangu Lakota water protector Cheryl Angel, Standing Rock helped her define what she stands against: an economy rooted in extraction of resources and exploitation of people and planet. It wasn't until she'd had some distance that the vision of what she stands for came into focus.
Last week, the Peruvian Palm Oil Producers' Association (JUNPALMA) promised to enter into an agreement for sustainable and deforestation-free palm oil production. The promise was secured by the U.S. based National Wildlife Federation (NWF) in collaboration with the local government, growers and the independent conservation organization Sociedad Peruana de Ecodesarrollo.
The rallying cry to build it again and to build it better than before is inspiring after a natural disaster, but it may not be the best course of action, according to new research published in the journal Science.
"Faced with global warming, rising sea levels, and the climate-related extremes they intensify, the question is no longer whether some communities will retreat—moving people and assets out of harm's way—but why, where, when, and how they will retreat," the study begins.
The researchers suggest that it is time to rethink retreat, which is often seen as a last resort and a sign of weakness. Instead, it should be seen as the smart option and an opportunity to build new communities.
"We propose a reconceptualization of retreat as a suite of adaptation options that are both strategic and managed," the paper states. "Strategy integrates retreat into long-term development goals and identifies why retreat should occur and, in doing so, influences where and when."
The billions of dollars spent to rebuild the Jersey Shore and to create dunes to protect from future storms after Superstorm Sandy in 2012 may be a waste if sea level rise inundates the entire coastline.
"There's a definite rhetoric of, 'We're going to build it back better. We're going to win. We're going to beat this. Something technological is going to come and it's going to save us,'" said A.R. Siders, an assistant professor with the disaster research center at the University of Delaware and lead author of the paper, to the New York Times. "It's like, let's step back and think for a minute. You're in a fight with the ocean. You're fighting to hold the ocean in place. Maybe that's not the battle we want to pick."
Rethinking retreat could make it a strategic, efficient, and equitable way to adapt to the climate crisis, the study says.
Dr. Siders pointed out that it has happened before. She noted that in the 1970s, the small town of Soldiers Grove, Wisconsin moved itself out of the flood plain after one too many floods. The community found and reoriented the business district to take advantage of highway traffic and powered it entirely with solar energy, as the New York Times reported.
That's an important lesson now that rising sea levels pose a catastrophic risk around the world. Nearly 75 percent of the world's cities are along shorelines. In the U.S. alone coastline communities make up nearly 40 percent of the population— more than 123 million people, which is why Siders and her research team are so forthright about the urgency and the complexities of their findings, according to Harvard Magazine.
Some of those complexities include, coordinating moves across city, state or even international lines; cultural and social considerations like the importance of burial grounds or ancestral lands; reparations for losses or damage to historic practices; long-term social and psychological consequences; financial incentives that often contradict environmental imperatives; and the critical importance of managing retreat in a way that protects vulnerable and poor populations and that doesn't exacerbate past injustices, as Harvard Magazine reported.
If communities could practice strategic retreats, the study says, doing so would not only reduce the need for people to choose among bad options, but also improve their circumstances.
"It's a lot to think about," said Siders to Harvard Magazine. "And there are going to be hard choices. It will hurt—I mean, we have to get from here to some new future state, and that transition is going to be hard.…But the longer we put off making these decisions, the worse it will get, and the harder the decisions will become."
To help the transition, the paper recommends improved access to climate-hazard maps so communities can make informed choices about risk. And, the maps need to be improved and updated regularly, the paper said as the New York Times reported.
"It's not that everywhere should retreat," said Dr. Siders to the New York Times. "It's that retreat should be an option. It should be a real viable option on the table that some places will need to use."
Leaked documents show that Jair Bolsonaro's government intends to use the Brazilian president's hate speech to isolate minorities living in the Amazon region. The PowerPoint slides, which democraciaAbierta has seen, also reveal plans to implement predatory projects that could have a devastating environmental impact.