The Bioponic Debate – Are There Bigger Fish to Fry?

I can smell it; spring is just around the corner. While some areas of the country are still under winter’s frigid grip, elongated English cucumbers are flourishing in shade houses near the Mexican border. Tantalizing heirloom tomatoes, curvaceous eggplant and thick zucchini are growing in various mediums of soil and soil-less technologies. They fill our winter plate. Innovative farmers have figured out how to maintain vigorous populations of microbes using natural fertilizers to cultivate food in containers and other soil-less conditions (sweepingly named Bioponics). For the time being, they can market their produce as certified organic if they follow the organic regulations. All this could change in 2017.

While the “to soil or not to soil” debate rages on, does the organic community not have bigger fish to fry?

What does bioponic mean?

The term bioponics is used to describe a broad spectrum of ways to grow food outside of the outermost crust of the earth’s surface. They can have roots a dangle immersed in microbial active, nutrient rich water solutions (hydroponics), or they can be cultivated adjacent to brimming tanks of edible fish, whose waste is transformed into plant nutrients (aquaponics). The third category is container growing which includes everything from an assembly of small pots to large expanses of urban concrete filled with soil. They all utilize solid and liquid fertilizers in various growing mediums that ensure healthy biological activity. The entire spectrum of organic bioponic growing methods maintains biological activity, saves water and conserves land use. Only approved organic fertilizers are used, and toxic inputs are never allowed.

Why this hot topic now?

The definition of organic on the home page of the National Organic Program (NOP) reads: “Organic is a labeling term that indicates that the food or other agricultural product has been produced through approved methods that integrate cultural, biological, and mechanical practices that foster cycling of resources, promote ecological balance, and conserve biodiversity.”  It does not mention soil as an absolute requirement. This definition is the source of years of confusion and debate, and today it’s the hottest topic, threatening to tear the organic community asunder.

The National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) is a federal advisory board tasked with making recommendation to the NOP on changes to the organic regulations. Since 2003 various NOSB members have been deliberating on these water-based systems. Some boards supported the use of bioponics and container growing in organic, and some more fickle boards recommended prohibiting it.

Throughout the ensuing chaos, the NOP never issued a final written rule prohibiting bioponic growing methods. As a result, organic certifiers spent the last several years certifying organic operations using hydroponic and container growing methods. Family farmers and urban crofters have built thriving businesses growing produce across the organic foodscape using bioponic methods. Consumers across North America enjoy these succulent organic fruits and vegetables in the midst of winter’s howl.

The “movement” and the “trade” at odds

For many an old fart (like me) the roots of the organic movement began with passion, a small plot of tillable land and a local Co-op buyer. Times were different then, simpler with no internet, filled with ideology and hope. The soil was the movement and it propelled us with its silent spring of messages to clean up our agricultural act.

Times progressed, and so the movement developed a trade. The 1990 Farm Bill enlisted the USDA, and the organic regulations went into effect. Farmers began planting more organic acres and incorporated fresh innovative ways of growing into organic production. Organic farms became bigger and more efficient—sometimes leaving the smaller old timers behind. The “movement” and the “trade” took different positions on this expansion and metastasized into two very different growths.

Today the “movement” and the “trade” are deeply polarized over many issues, and the hottest one is the question of whether bioponic production should be allowed in organic production. Is organic only defined by plants growing in the outermost crust of the earth’s surface? Can organic embrace new innovative ways of growing food that conserve water and land? Should new production methods that foster microbial activity and preserve biodiversity bear the USDA organic seal?

Should urban dwellers be able to grow in containers that supply abundant local organic food while creating jobs, prosperity and hope? Should the family farm in Arizona or Mexico continue to supply organic warm weather vegetables to the shivering plates of northern dwellers?

The battle rages on, and I most likely will get caught in the philosophical crosshairs just asking these questions.

There are bigger fish to fry

At this moment, while the organic “trade” and “movement” bicker and bash over soil and water, there are bigger more important beasts to be wrestled with.

Conventional agricultural interests and trade associations have the ear of Donald Trump and many in the 115th Congress. Some of them are not happy with what transpired since the 1990 Farm Bill when the National Organic Program was created. They believe that the government shouldn’t be in the business of running a marketing program, especially one that they say hoodwinks consumers into thinking the more expensive products are healthier. They look to the 2018 Farm Bill as a chance to dismantle or  denude the NOP so that it has minimal influence, power or funding.

Is now the time for the organic “movement” and “trade” to lay down their internal battle cry, set aside differences and join forces for the benefit of the organic whole? If we take the time to realize the internal firing squad is as dangerous as the external forces that threaten us, perhaps we may have a chance at this. If we continue to get stuck in the outermost topsoil of the planet throwing stones rather than envisioning a more expansive inclusive future for organic, I fear all could be lost.

The NOSB will be discussing Bioponic growing April 19-21 at the Sheraton Denver Downtown Hotel. If you wish to be part of the discussion sign up by March 30 to make a comment.  Let us find a middle ground at this meeting that allows for respectful, open debate.

A bigger more formidable  fish needs our undivided attention.

4 thoughts on “The Bioponic Debate – Are There Bigger Fish to Fry?

  1. Melody, I agree! So let the Trade set aside their efforts to redefine the organic label and end this divisive battle. So far the circular firing squad has seemed to be mostly lined up and shooting in our direction. We would welcome an end to this division. Please join us in supporting traditional organic values so that we can present a united front against the Trumpocolypse. We could use the might of the financial powerhouses who make a living off of the good will of the organic community.

    But I don’t agree that healthy soil as the foundation of organic farming is a small fish. It is the whole meal. Many of us still believe those same things that you did when you were younger.

    Dave Chapman

  2. Dear Melody,
    Fertile soil has always been the cornerstone of organic farming. The USDA NOP took the word “soil” out of their definition back in 2002, if I remember correctly, possibly in anticipation of aiding this hydroponic invasion. If the “fresh innovative ways of growing produce” as you call them are as desirable as your prose suggests, why wouldn’t a company like UNFI proudly announce that fact to the public as a great new advance and label the produce as “bioponic?” But i am sure you know the answer to that question as well as I do. When the organic food buying public becomes aware that hydroponic is being passed off as organic, they will stop buying it and the damage to organic will not have come from any circular firing squad.
    Sincerely,
    Eliot Coleman

  3. Hello to all the folks interested in (truly) organic food out there in the blogosphere,

    Let’s not forget who is writing this blog. The self-professed “old fart” has morphed into one of the most powerful lobbyists in the organic industry. Melody represents United Natural Foods Inc., a multibillion-dollar outfit that strong-armed its way into a virtual monopoly in the distribution of “natural” and organic food (although its glory, and stock price, has been fading as of late). She’s also the former board chair of the powerful organic lobby, the Organic Trade Association.

    What’s this talk about large-industrial scale versus small hippie farmers? The organic standards are scale-neutral. It is the opinion of The Cornucopia Institute that, if properly enforced by the USDA, they are scale-limiting (and that doesn’t mean small because there are some pretty dedicated producers who have scaled-up).

    The folks who Melody is hoping will cease and desist (what she calls “the movement”), like Dave and Eliot, are not going anywhere. Because although farmers need to make a living they many are involved in organics for more than just money.

    Mark Kastel

    “THOSE WHO ARE WORKING AGAINST US ARE NO GOOD FOR US”
    One of the most noteworthy principles that emerged out of the 19th century “agrarian revolt” which has particular relevance to our times was spoken by William Lamb, the leader of the Alliance radicals and perhaps populism’s most articulate theoretician, in a historic 1886 open letter to the Rural Citizen.
    As business became more economically concentrated, Lamb contended, farmers who continued to strive for friendship and parity with the commercial world were simply failing to comprehend “what is going on against us.” Members of the Alliance, he wrote, had to put aside such naiveté. Al Krebs

    “We think all members should show the world which side they are on and we are looking forward for men that will advocate our interests, those who are working against us are no good for us . . . Then for it to be said that we are unwise to let them alone, we can’t hold our pens still until we have exposed the matter and let it be known what it is we are working for.”

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