Originally published by Modern Farmer

The long-burbling discontent is now a lawsuit.

A hydroponic organization.
Photography by Muph on Shutterstock

For years, organic advocates have spoken out against regulations over one big issue: dirt.

There is a major divide in the organic agriculture world, with multiple factions debating whether hydroponic and aeroponic produce should be permitted to call itself organic. Last week, the Center for Food Safety, along with a coalition of farmers, filed a lawsuit to legally forbid this produce from carrying the certified organic label.

Hydroponics and aeroponics do not rely on soil to grow crops; instead, nutrients are dissolved in water, which is then circulated or misted directly onto the roots of plants. It’s a very efficient way of growing food, and is often used in places where there isn’t enough open soil and sunlight—in cities, for example. But it’s also used by huge conglomerates, like Driscoll’s and Wholesum Harvest, to cut costs and produce crops year-round.

Hydroponics have never been forbidden to use the USDA organic certification program, and it’s often quite easy for them; indoor operations have little need for pesticides, for example. That has meant that these huge hydro farms can produce food very cheaply, and much cheaper than soil-based farmers. A common refrain among organic farmers is that organic certification is all about the soil, creating a sustainable model for the planet, and that indoor hydroponic operations don’t contribute to this at all.

The Center for Food Safety, in a release about this lawsuit, cites that the original Organic Foods Production Act of 1990, which established the rules for organic agriculture, specifically lists caring for soil.

From that law: “An organic plan shall contain provisions designed to foster soil fertility, primarily through the management of the organic content of the soil through proper tillage, crop rotation, and manuring.”

Hydroponic organic operations responded, of course, saying that any restriction would limit the amount of organic food at a time when demand is rising. The Coalition for Sustainable Organics, which represents hydroponic growers, released a statement saying, “This is not an issue that should be settled in the courts or politicized.”