Can a food be organic if it never touched soil? Some say it can't. They believe foods produced using hydroponic, aquaponic or aeroponic methods don't qualify as organic because they don't use soil. Some farmers have been fighting for the exclusion of these methods from organic certification by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), but now they're taking a different path. They're creating their own organic label that excludes water-grown methods.

Organics and soil

hydroponic tomatoes The USDA says these hydroponic tomatoes can be certified if they meet all the agency's standards. (Photo: Alekandre Baevi/Shutterstock)

Last year, these soil-only organic advocates bonded together and held rallies to fight against the inclusion of foods produced using these methods because they can rely heavily on industrialized methods. In addition to believing organics must include soil, they also fear that certifying hydroponics and aquaponics will lead to a loss in traditional organic farms and their healthy soils.

In a press release sent out last year in advance of the rallies, farmers and organic food advocates made their argument clear: For food to be organic, soil must be part of the equation. One champion of this movement is Fred Kirschenmann, who has been an organic farmer for 37 years, is president of Stone Barns in New York and a distinguished fellow at the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture in Iowa.

"So the thing that I think we need to understand more fully in our organic movement today is that it’s ultimately about the soil," Kirschenmann says in the press release. "The soil is what is the foundation of organic agriculture. And the reason for that is because soil is not just dirt as it is often assumed in our culture today. Soil is actually a living community. There are more microbes in a single tablespoonful of soil like this than there are humans on the planet — so billions of microbes — and it’s those microbes that provide all of the benefits from the food that we grow on soil."

Ultimately, the rallies didn't bring about the intended results. The National Organic Standard Board, which advises the USDA on the organic certification program, did not recommend that the USDA exclude hydroponics or aquaponics from organic certification.

In January of this year, the USDA clarified its position on hydroponics and aquaponics, saying they can be certified organic if they meet all standards, according to The Packer. Currently, being grown in soil is not one of the standards.

A second organic label is born

planting tomatoes Consumers who want to know if their plants have been grown in soil should be able to find that information out. (Photo: yuris/Shutterstock)

In response to the USDA allowing soil-less foods to qualify for organic certification, some soil-only advocates have banded together again — this time to create their own label. According to the The Register-Mail, there's a rebel group of scientists and farmers, calling themselves the Real Organic Project, who met in Vermont in late March to create the additional organic certification program. This summer, between 20 to 60 farms across the country will pilot the program.

No name for the label or exact wording has been released, but the label will indicate that produce was grown in soil and animal products came from pastured animals. The labels would be added by the farms themselves after an inspector certified that the farm met the new label's standards. These foods could also carry the USDA organic label, should they qualify for it.

The hydroponic industry responded to the new label by saying a second certification label will confuse consumers and give an edge to traditionally grown products. Advocates for the new label say hydroponic farming has the competitive edge because it can produce more than the traditional method.

Consumers should be informed about how their food is grown and the conditions they're grown under. I'm never in favor of the "more information will confuse consumers" argument because it discounts both the intelligence of shoppers and their right to know about their food. If consumers want to purchase foods that have been produced with soil and not hydroponically or aquaponically, I see no problem in an independent program that allows them to find that information easily.

Robin Shreeves ( @rshreeves ) focuses on food from a family perspective from her home base in New Jersey.

'Rebel' farmers launch second organic label
A new label will certify foods grown in soil and animal products from pastured animals and would rule out hydroponic and aquaponic techniques.