With one vote, the US National Organic Standards Board may have created the perfect conditions for a civil war over the soul of the organic food concept. On 1 November, the board voted – 8 to 7 – against a ban on hydroponic methods in organic farming. The government-appointed board advises the US Department of Agriculture on rules the organic industry must abide by.

Can one vote really change everything? To organic purists, the vote repudiated everything organic farming stands for. Organic farmers often see organic farming in near-religious terms; as much a calling as an alternative method of food production.

The ‘founding principles’ of organic farming call for the maintenance of an environmentally-responsible ecosystem. Farmers are stewards of the land, enhancing and regenerating soil through practices like crop rotation and cover cropping. Potential crop-destroying pests are dealt with in ways that will not harm the environment, often using non-synthetic pesticides or pest control methods that do not involve any chemicals.

Hydroponic farming avoids many of these issues. Hydroponic farming involves no soil; plants grow in a liquid solution supplying only nutrients that are needed. The method side-steps pest issues since plants grow indoors, away from potential pests. Instead of embracing the natural environment, hydroponic farming creates its own separate environment.

The hydroponics debate

Traditional organic farmers fear hydroponics for a variety of reasons, including economics. Hydroponic farming requires technological prowess and deep pockets, two things often in short supply for small organic farmers.

Hydroponic growers like berry giant Driscoll’s have the distribution heft and marketing prowess to deluge consumer markets with fresh, organically-grown fruits and vegetables grown year-round in greenhouses and selling at affordable prices. Traditional organic farmers are limited by what they can raise during the outdoor growing season.

Hydroponic growers feel that organic farming should be open to innovative production methods that increase food availability. Wholesum Harvest maintains that the 60 acres of greenhouses (as well as shadehouses for crops like cucumbers and eggplant) it operates allow year-round production of popular vegetables like tomatoes under glass. Greenhouse operations enable complete control of humidity and temperature for ideal growing conditions. Pests are kept out by screens, plastics and glass.

The economic and environmental benefits of this controlled environment are compelling. Because water can be recycled and recirculated, Wholesum Harvest estimates that it can grow its tomatoes organically using just three to five gallons of water per pound, versus the 26-37 gallons of water required for tomatoes grown in open fields. Greenhouses can even generate their own energy by using solar power. Wholesum Harvest was an early mover on solar power and obtains roughly a third of the electricity it uses from its own photovoltaic cells.

Traditional organic farmers see hydroponic production as a new form of ‘factory farming’ that further corporatizes organic agriculture. Some predict that virtually all certified organic tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers and lettuce will eventually be hydroponically grown. Amazon’s recent purchase of Whole Foods and subsequent discounting of the latter’s products indicates that a profit margin squeeze is likely coming to organic foods. This could further shift the balance of power from small producers to large producers and retailers.

Biodynamic farming: an alternative for smaller organic producers

The threat of organic hydroponics could push traditional organic farmers to seek new ways to stand out, including biodynamic agriculture that more closely reflects the roots of organic farming. Biodynamic agriculture sees the farm as a self-sustaining ecosystem that must produce its own fertility either from compost or from animal-based manure. Chemical pesticides, synthetic fertilizers, and GMOs are all banned. Soil health is a huge focus.

Biodynamic farms must also set aside at least 10% of their land for “biodiversity” – a mandate that makes biodynamic much less attractive to so-called factory farms. In order for a product or a farm to represent itself as biodynamic, it must be certified by Demeter, an ecological certification organization which operates in over 40 countries around the world.

Biodynamic farming may come across as a new concept, but it is not new, having been created by Austrian philosopher Rudolf Steiner in the 1920s. A highly-trained scientist and a respected philosopher, Steiner came up with the biodynamic concept as an odd mix between spiritual and scientific methods that includes astronomical calendar considerations for planting and harvest as well as the use of various preparations made from herbs, mineral substances and animal manures.

Mystical origins aside, biodynamic farming is on the rise. According to one recent update from Demeter USA, total acreage for biodynamic farming in the US grew 16% in 2016. While nobody expects biodynamic agriculture to displace organic agriculture anytime soon, the battle over the heart and soul of organic is another matter.

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