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Organic Farming Battle Pits Aquaponics, Hydroponics Against Traditional Soil Farms

by Abigail Sterling and Kenny Choi

SAN FRANCISCO (KPIX 5) -- The global organic farming market is expected to hit $103 billion dollars this year, up 8% from last year. In the U.S., part of the growth is due to high-tech indoor farming. The growing trend is raising questions about the true meaning of organic.

Organic shoppers rely on the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) "organic" label to buy their produce. What they likely don't know is that more and more of it is grown hydroponically (plants grown in liquid nutrient solutions instead of soil), aquaponically (plants and fish grown in aquaculture and hydroponics system together), or in containers, all techniques that do not use soil.

Paul Muller is co-owner of Full Belly Farm, a 500-acre farm northeast of Sacramento that's been growing certified organic produce for 38 years. Eighty varieties of organic vegetables, fruits and nuts grow here, sold locally to Bay Area supermarkets and farmers markets.

"There's a whole system that we are farming, stewarding, fostering," said Muller. "I mean, if you look out here and just stop for a bit, these plants are covered in bees who are out doing their pollinating."

Some 100 miles south in Half Moon Bay, Ken Armstrong also grows pesticide-free produce that he sells to local restaurants.

He's not certified organic, though he could be. He says it's too much red tape. But Armstrong believes the aquaponic farming method he is using is equally natural and delicious.

"The waste products produced by the fish are bacteriologically converted into plant food," said Armstrong. "The plants absorb that nitrogen out of the water system, which cleans it. And then that clean water is returned to the tank. So it's a closed loop recycling system. It's my firm belief that, honestly, aquaponics is what organics wishes it could be."

So what is organic? What it really comes down to is the label. Organic farmers have to follow strict organic rules to get an "Organic" sticker put on their produce. With it, they can charge a premium.

But the USDA issued a statement a few years back that changed the playing field: It allowed large scale indoor growers to get certified as organic. That put the squeeze on traditional outdoor organic farmers, who are crying foul.

"Farming is hard and people are always thinking about a better way to do it in organic agriculture. But if it's a little too innovative, then you have somebody complaining," said Daniel Sumner, an agricultural economist and professor at the University of California, Davis.

Sumner says there are big players involved. But there's no official data on how big, partly because they don't advertise.

"When it comes to organic, a big part of it is the image. We are in an era where people don't brag about the technology. If anything they want to talk about wholesomeness and safety and all those things, rather than the technology that creates it," said Sumner. "So it doesn't surprise me that people in the food industry these days aren't telling you about their technology."

In fact, California Certified Organic Farmers (CCOF) - an independent certifying association for the industry - declined to give us names of indoor operators, though CCOF did confirm 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 marketplace.

"You have this advantage growing indoors that you can grow at a different season," said Sumner. "So you may be able to harvest it a little earlier. And as we all know, you go to the supermarket and if you can get some seedless mandarins in november you pay extra for them."

Outdoor organic farmers aren't giving ground. They say there's something very important missing in the equation … the soil. "Organic has always been about the soil," said Muller.

The Organic Foods Production Act specifies that organic crop production must foster soil fertility, something Muller does at his farm with a cover crop. "The cover crop is something that we are growing just to feed the soil, or feed animals, and the animals in turn are feeding the soil," said Muller.

Since indoor farmers can't comply with the soil rule, Full Belly along with several other organic farms and the Center for Food Safety filed suit, claiming the USDA is "undermining the very integrity of the National Organic Program" by allowing organic certification of non-soil operations.

At the supermarket, we found consumers mostly unaware.

"When you buy your produce, your greens, your butter lettuce, would you rather have it grown in soil or not?" we asked Bobby Johnson, a shopper at Good Earth Natural Foods in Fairfax.

"I'm not sure. Which is better?" was his response.

Shoppers didn't seem to care too much about the soil issue.

"I am not sure it would make a difference or not," said shopper Catherine Fee.

But they all did agree better labels would be a good thing.

"If it says organic I want to make sure it's totally organic. And if it's grown in soil I would like to know that," said Debbie Hayes.

"Absolutely. We need to know what we are eating," said Marsha Dawson.

It's something Full Belly and 100 other organic farms like it across the country have picked up on, creating "Real Organic" labels of their own. "Our point is that consumers should be able to know," said Muller.

The Real Organic Project is focusing on calling the USDA to task and educating consumers that there are farms growing in the soil that they should support," said Muller.

In March, a federal judge sided with the USDA in that lawsuit filed by Full Belly and the other farmers. Their attorneys have filed an appeal.

Statement from California Certified Organic Farmers: 

CCOF has certified container-based organic systems for over thirty years. We currently certify over 4,000 organic producers and about 100 of these businesses  grow crops such as berries, tomatoes, and cucumbers in container systems. This excludes producers of wheatgrass, sprouts, microgreens, and mushrooms who also grow their products in soilless systems. In total, these types of producers account for less than 5% of CCOF's total certified organic membership. Most of the container producers certified by CCOF are based in California and Mexico, typically in arid environments; however, we do certify container-based producers across the country.

The National Organic Program allows hydroponic and container production systems and as an accredited certifier, CCOF cannot deny certification of these systems. These producers are required to comply with the same standards as any other organic producer. CCOF requires the entire production site, whether that is a greenhouse, rooftop, or field, to be managed organically through the sourcing of organic seed, prohibiting the use of synthetic pesticides and fertilizers, protecting soil health around and under containers, planting beneficial crops, fostering biodiversity, and all other requirements in the national organic standards.

CCOF has advocated for and continues to support a hydroponically grown or container grown labeling statement, but we cannot require a label unless it is required in the national organic standards. We support transparency in the organic market.


Statement from NatureSweet, parent company of Brighthouse Organics, produce found at several Bay Area supermarkets

NatureSweet® is the groundbreaking leader of the fresh produce industry, driven through unleashing the power of our people, committed to transforming the lives of agriculture workers in North America. Always vine-nurtured and hand-picked at the peak of freshness, NatureSweet® produce guarantees great taste all year round. NatureSweet® produce is carefully grown, harvested, and packaged by more than 8,000 full-time Associates, and is sold at major grocers, mass retailers, club stores, and food service operators in the United States, Canada, and Mexico.

Known for amazing year around employees (we call Associates), award-winning quality, and innovative growing and packaging, NatureSweet® is also committed to having a positive social, environmental, and economic impact on the communities in which they operate.

At NatureSweet, our innovative greenhouse growing method involves the use of coconut husks and drip irrigation instead of soil. This helps the tomato plants resist disease and uses 80% less water, making it an extremely sustainable method of growing our produce.

Brighthouse Organics is our USDA Organic certified line of tomatoes. All our organic products are carefully grown in compliance with the USDA Organic Certification.

NatureSweet is headquartered in San Antonio, TX and we proudly grow produce in both US and Mexico.


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