Organic farming battle pits aquaponics, hydroponics versus traditional soil farming – CBS San Francisco

by Abigail Sterling and Kenny Choi

SAN FRANCISCO (KPIX 5) – The global organic farming market is projected to hit $ 103 billion this year, up 8% year over year. In the US, some of the growth is due to high-tech indoor farming. The growing trend raises questions about the real meaning of organic.

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Organic buyers rely on the US Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) “organic” label when purchasing their products. What they probably don’t know is that more and more of them are being grown hydroponically (plants grown in liquid nutrient solutions instead of soil), aquaponic (plants and fish grown together in aquaculture and hydroponics), or in containers, all techniques that are techniques do not use soil.

Paul Muller is a co-owner of Full Belly Farm, a 500-acre farm northeast of Sacramento that has grown certified organic products for 38 years. 80 varieties of organic vegetables, fruits and nuts grow here and are sold locally to supermarkets and farmers’ markets in the Bay Area.

“There is a whole system that we manage, manage and promote,” said Müller. “I mean, if you look out here and pause for a moment, these plants are full of bees doing their pollination.”

About 160 kilometers south in Half Moon Bay, Ken Armstrong also grows pesticide-free products that he sells in local restaurants.

It is not certified organic, although it could be. He says it’s too much red tape. However, Armstrong believes the aquaponic farming method he uses is just as natural and delicious.

“The waste products from the fish are bacteriologically converted into plant-based food,” says Armstrong. “The plants take up this nitrogen from the water system, which purifies it. And then the clean water is returned to the tank. So it is a closed recycling system. I firmly believe that aquaponics is what Organics wishes it could be. “

So what is organic? What really matters is the label. Organic farmers have to adhere to strict organic rules in order to be able to attach an “organic” sticker to their products. With this they can collect a premium.

But the USDA issued a statement a few years ago that changed the playing field: it allowed large indoor growers to get certified as organic. This put pressure on the traditional outdoor organic farmers who cry badly.

“Farming is tough and people are always thinking of a better way to do it in organic farming. But if it’s a little too innovative, someone complains, ”says Daniel Sumner, agricultural economist and professor at the University of California, Davis.

Sumner says there are big players. But there’s no official data on how big, in part because they don’t advertise.

“When it comes to organic, image is a big part of it. We’re in a time when people aren’t bragging about technology. If anything, they want to talk about health and safety and all of those things instead of the technology that creates them, ”Sumner said. “So I’m not surprised that people in the food industry these days don’t talk about their technology.”

In fact, California Certified Organic Farmers (CCOF) – the state’s certification body – refused to give us names of indoor farms, even though CCOF confirmed that many of the farms are in Mexico.

But Sumner says one thing seems certain: indoor growers are able to undercut traditional organic farmers in the market.

“You have the advantage of growing indoors that you can grow at a different time of the year,” said Sumner. “So maybe you can harvest it a little earlier. And as we all know, you go to the supermarket and if you get seedless mandarins in November, you pay extra for it. “

Outdoor organic farmers don’t give in. They say that something very important is missing from the equation … the bottom. “Organic has always been about the soil,” says Müller.

The Organic Food Production Act stipulates that organic crop production must promote soil fertility, which Müller does on his farm with a catch crop. “The catch crop is something that we only grow to feed the soil or to feed animals, and the animals in turn feed the soil,” said Müller.

With indoor farmers unable to adhere to the soil rule, Full Belly, along with several other organic farms and the Center for Food Safety, filed a lawsuit claiming that the USDA is “undermining the integrity of the National Organic Program” by getting organic certification of non-floor work.

In the supermarket, we found consumers mostly unconscious.

“When you buy your produce, your vegetables, your butter lettuce, would you prefer to have them grown in soil or not?” We asked Bobby Johnson, a buyer at Good Earth Natural Foods in Fairfax.

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“I’m not sure. Which one is better?” was his answer.

Buyers didn’t seem too concerned with the soil problem.

“I’m not sure if it would make any difference or not,” said buyer Catherine Fee.

But everyone agreed that better labels would be a good thing.

“When it says organic, I want to make sure it’s completely organic. And if it’s grown in soil, I’d like to know, ”said Debbie Hayes.

“Absolutely. We need to know what we’re eating,” said Marsha Dawson.

It’s something that Full Belly and 100 other organic farms across the country have taken up and created their own “Real Organic” labels. “Our point is that consumers should be able to know,” said Müller.

The Real Organic Project is focused on making the USDA a mission and educating consumers that there are farms growing on the land that they should support, ”said Muller.

In March, a federal judge sided with the USDA in this lawsuit filed by Full Belly and the other farmers. Your attorneys have appealed.

Statement from California Certified Organic Farmers:

CCOF has had certified container-based bio-systems for over thirty years. We currently certify over 4,000 organic producers and around 100 of these companies grow crops such as berries, tomatoes and cucumbers in container systems. This excludes producers of wheatgrass, sprouts, microgreens and mushrooms who also cultivate their products in soilless systems. Overall, these types of producers account for less than 5% of the total certified organic membership of the CCOF. Most of the CCOF certified container manufacturers are based in California and Mexico, typically in arid environments; However, we certify container-based manufacturers across the country.

The National Organic Program allows hydroponic and container production systems and as an accredited certifier, CCOF cannot refuse to certify these systems. These producers must adhere to the same standards as all other organic producers. CCOF requires that the entire production facility, be it a greenhouse, a roof or a field, be managed organically by sourcing organic seeds, banning the use of synthetic pesticides and fertilizers, protecting soil health around and under containers, growing useful plants will promote biodiversity and all other requirements in the national organic standards.

CCOF has advocated and continues to support a hydroponic or containerized labeling statement, but we cannot require labeling unless required by national organic standards. We support transparency in the organic market.

Statement by NatureSweet, the parent company of Brighthouse Organics, Products found in several supermarkets in the Bay Area

NatureSweet® is the breakthrough leader in the fresh produce industry, powered by unleashing the power of our people and committed to transforming the lives of farm workers in North America. Always vine-grown and hand-picked at the peak of freshness, NatureSweet® guarantees good taste all year round. NatureSweet® produce is carefully grown, harvested, and packaged by more than 8,000 full-time employees and sold at major grocers, wholesalers, club stores and restaurants in the United States, Canada and Mexico.

Known for great year-round employees (we call it associates), award-winning quality, and innovative growing and packaging, NatureSweet® is also committed to making positive social, environmental, and economic impacts on the communities in which they operate.

At NatureSweet, our innovative greenhouse growing method utilizes the use of coconut shells and drip irrigation instead of soil. This helps the tomato plants withstand disease and uses 80% less water, making it an extremely sustainable way to grow our products.

Brighthouse Organics is our USDA Organic certified line of tomatoes. All of our organic products are carefully grown in accordance with USDA organic certification.

NatureSweet is headquartered in San Antonio, TX and we proudly grow products in both the United States and Mexico.

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