Dirty language sullies soil debate at National Organic Standards Board

Created on 2016-11-18 15:48

Published on 2016-11-18 15:58

The solution seemed simple enough. Some urban farmers started growing food in nutrient-fortified water instead of dirt, and some other folks shrugged agreeably and let it be called organic agriculture. Now, a decade later, the business of “bioponics” is big, really big, and it still depends on the organic seal to appeal to consumers.

The problem is, real organic food is grown in sunlight and soil, in the ground, with the help of compost, minerals and pollinators. Bioponics* are not. Large scale soil-less growing takes place in windowless buildings under massive arrays of electric lights with an IV drip slowly pushed to the roots through long plastic feeding tubes.

The organic farming community is being coerced to accept bioponics as organic. The Organic Foods Product Act (OFPA) clearly states that organic food must be grown within, and be complementary to, a healthy bio-diverse ecosystem. The OFPA also mandated continuous improvement of organic growing methods by automatically eliminating some chemicals used in processing organic food. This “sunset rule” made sure that temporary exceptions to the organic rule never became permanent. Bioponic growing is the Great Exception that needs to be corrected, but the landless water-growers are fighting back.

At the November, 2016, meeting of organic farmers in St. Louis, the National Organic Standards Board considered, again, whether the soil-free growing exception should continue. The board heard two days of public testimony on this and other topics. Not surprisingly, farmers with farms, who created the real organic movement, stood in defense of their principles. Then, a dirty war broke out.

The Big Bioponic lobby called the real organic farmers “affluent anti-science elitists” who are “afraid of new technology” and are “preventing economic growth” by being unwilling to use “all the tools in the toolbox” to “feed the hungry 9 billion people” who will soon live on the planet.

Sound familiar? That’s the same rhetorical kidney punches the biotech lobby throws to denigrate the pro-organic and anti-GMO movement. It’s dirty language. It’s dirty thinking. And it serves mainly to hide the core brokenness of their soil-less demands.

One bioponic lobbyist claimed to speak for consumers. He said he had polled 500 consumers and asked them what’s important to them about organic. Ah hah! Only 20% said “soil”. See? We don’t need soil in organic.

I asked NOSB board members to hold that thought. I asked them to answer a similar question: What makes you happy? Not one of them said “air”. Yet, if I took air away from them for even five seconds, their happiness would end. No one thinks of air as a prerequisite to happiness. We assume air is always with us. Now imagine taking the soil out of an organic farm. Still happy? That’s right, just as we take air for granted, so we take soil in organic as a given.

The biotech-style bullying by the Big Bioponic lobby is very disappointing. I could see how the disreality of the presidential campaign had made dirty language and rhetorical tricks normal. After all, Americans have lived for 20 years hearing the bizarre arguments made by the professional flacks protecting the chemical companies who sell genetically modified crops that depend on their dangerous and profitable pesticides. If biotech’s false premises and bad logic worked against organic farmers to promote GMOs, why not use it against organic farmers to promote bioponics?

It’s hard to imagine two old organic farmers talking in their fields about how to treat an infestation of weeds, and hearing one say to the other “you’re an anti-science elitist if you don’t spray RoundUp”. Just. Wouldn’t. Happen. The frame of reference for organic farmers is improving land, seeds and methods to continuously improve the future — not borrowing against it.

The actual facts that are under discussion (or that should be) is whether soil-less and sun-less growing fits with the Organic Foods Production Act and the principles of the organic movement. It simply doesn’t fit. By introducing accusatory argumentation methods, the bioponic lobbyists are deeply offending and dividing the organic moveent. Their pro-GMO, pro-chemical, pro-get-big-or-get-out mentors would be proud.

Also right out of the biotech lobby playbook is the surreptitious spread of soil-less bioponic food produced by “certified organic” operations. As proud as Big Bioponic claims to feel about their technological feats, you won’t find any disclosure about soil-free and sunlight-free organic growing methods on the labels of their “organic” foods. Like GMO ingredients in the general food supply, bioponic food now pervades the organic produce aisle. And like the GMO lobbyists, Big Bioponic is using this sleight-of-hand as a weapon in debates. It’s too late, they admonish farmers: the bioponic cat is already out of the bag.

Consumers don’t take well to being hoodwinked. Food conglomerates that failed to disclose the presence of GMO ingredients, or have failed to announce concrete plans to remove them, have suffered boycotts, public shaming, and slack demand. In the case of organics, USDA certifiers that approve of and certify bioponic operations have put themselves in a tight spot. Their growth and revenue targets depend on bioponic revenue. They have no choice but to ally with Big Bioponic and force the NOSB to formalize its acceptance by the National Organic Program. I would suggest they proceed carefully with this strategy. If organic activist groups educate consumers about which organic certifiers are in on the bioponic charade, those certifiers themselves may become the target of consumer boycotts. Real organic producers will change their allegiance to certifiers that support real organic farming to signal they are not bioponic producers. In any case, betraying consumer trust never ends well.

The division between Big Bioponic and the organic farmers will be resolved in one of two ways.

The USDA may force organic farmers to accept bioponics, in which case organic farmers will spin out of the USDA organic program and start a new one from scratch. Expensive, long term, divisive, but probably necessary. If it doesn’t happen over night, it has to happen eventually. Why? Big Bioponics is attracting the attention of the global food conglomerates. Who else can afford to lease 250,000 square foot warehouses and outfit them with expensive electrical and water infrastructure? Big Bioponic will scale up so fast and so large that its cost advantage will quash both real organic farmers and the small fry bioponic folks who idealistically think they will have a place at the table. Large scale “organic” bioponics will own the market based on price, control of distribution and economic clout with retailers. The “backward anti-science organic farmer”, mere steward of the soil, will grow only enough for his family and the farm stand. When the USDA says one tomato is the same as the other, but one costs twice as much, real organic farming is done.

Or, Big Bioponic could step up and do the right thing. It should introduce the Bioponic Food Production Act and set up its own rule making structure as appropriate to make its own unique rules. Instead of bullying and brow-beating organic farmers into surrendering their core principles, Big Bioponic should stand on its own two fins. Instead of convoluted arguments that a chemical IV drip is the same as a healthy soil biome, Big Bioponic should say, proudly, we can grow more for less, safely, so we want to be recognized and protected for what we do. If Big Bioponic wants the same stature and protection that real organic has, and it should be willing to earn it.

Just don’t call it Organic.

*BioPonic is the new catch-all term for food production systems that do not grow plants in soil in the ground. It’s a long spectrum that is still being debated. On one end is container gardening/farming where the ground itself is inhospitable so container soil is required. At the other end are plants that grow in nutrient dense water and never see soil or sunlight. What bioponics lacks is a diverse and healthy ecosystem that promotes the livelihood and regeneration of soil, wildlife, human inhabitants, air and water. Those are organic principles. Biponics can possible be part of a health ecosystem, but it does not constitute one on its own. See also hydroponic, aquaponic, aquaculture, hydroculture, etc.

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