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Last week the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) rejected the pleas of organic activists, farmers and many businesses to "keep the soil in organic" by voting to allow growers of hydroponic vegetables to label their produce "organic."

The NOSB's vote did little to shore up consumer faith in the USDA Organic label, especially after well-publicized news reports earlier this year that accused a few high-profile organic brands of giving "organic" a bad name by skirting the rules. And it had some industry pioneers so angry and disheartened, that according to the Washington Post they were even "threatening to leave the program they helped create."

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Aqua Mechanical / Flickr

By Dan Nosowitz

On Nov. 1, the National Organic Standards Board finally made a decision on one of the most divisive issues in the organic world: should crops grown in water, containers, or otherwise not in the ground be allowed to call themselves organic?

The decision is thus: hydroponic and container gardens will remain eligible for organic certification.

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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.

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