Steve Sprinkel is a certified organic farmer from Ojai, California, where he also operates the Farmer and the Cook, a restaurant and market serving organic fare. He has held numerous leadership positions in the organic movement, including having acted as the board chair of The Cornucopia Institute. He currently sits on Cornucopia’s formal policy advisory panel.

Roiling Sargassos of Plasticene Smoothies
In Season for Edible Ojai, Saticoy and Simi Valley, 6 January 2017
by Steve Sprinkel

Steve Sprinkel testifies at
the spring 2015 NOSB meeting

When consumers want something better than they are being offered, they almost always get their way. You want arugula? How much? How about chocolate grown by people in the Ivory Coast with access to potable drinking water? Local honey? Tangerines with no seeds? Organic ice cream without carrageenan? The strange democracy of the market complies.

Trucks full of Coke are still rolling everywhere because everyone isn’t spooked about the downside claims. People want it, so they get it. Public agencies try to legislate Coke into oblivion but consumers still crave those amber bubbles. Yet, look at all the groovy, healthier, fizzy drinks crowding the display case. Consumers started buying alternatives in small quantities and now you can get rivers of longevity elixirs at Walmart.

Though sometimes it’s not as simple as letting the market place sort the process out.

Over the past 15 years, consumer advocates in the organic marketplace have risen to demand that manufacturers, producers, and even government agencies comply with established laws and standards designed to promote consumer confidence in the organic label.

Campaigns brought by the Organic Consumers Association, The Cornucopia Institute, Consumers Union, and the Center for Food Safety—about the only organizations remaining who fight for consumers—are widely known. They argue before government, compose fantastically compelling, many-thousand-word arguments, bring lawsuits, ask legislative allies to interfere, build alliances, and educate consumers.

Everything but the very last effort mentioned—educating consumers—fails to do much good because government has already made up its mind. No white paper is going to make the USDA stop hyping GMO crops. Tell Senator Feinstein we’ll get back to her. They didn’t make a mistake by refusing to assure that chickens be allowed access to the open air in organic operations. They were not inept when they allowed big organic dairies to operate without abiding by lawful pasture requirements. These were intentional actions. Not mistakes.

There is a very long list of obscure but worthy battles that have been worth the fight. The recent donnybrook over carrageenan is one of them. It sounds like a some brand of Scotch whisky made in the foggy heath by mythical figures, but carrageenan is instead a food thickening agent extracted from edible seaweed. Sulfated polysaccharides they are, lassie. They are used in ice cream and shampoo and fire-fighting foam, and they were formerly incorporated in organic dairy products until the manufacturers got tired of defending them against consumer complaints and gradually phased them out of production.

Sure there were petitions and articles in The New York Times. Dr. Andrew Weil recommended we stay away from carrageenan because it’s a proven inflammation agent. Dr. Joseph Mercola, another iconic consumer health advocate, had been sharply critical of seaweed in ice cream before that. Finally after six years of argumentation and science, the mighties and minis all agreed, but when the USDA recently removed carrageenan from the list of approved substances in organic food processing, it was already moot. The organic industry had already moved on because they were concerned that consumers were not buying organic yogurt at the same voracious clip. When enough consumers voted against the suspect agent with their pocketbook, they served their interests far more than credible Cornucopia ever could by fencing with the USDA. But consumers needed the facts such organizations provide in order to make an informed choice.

Now comes the latest challenge to the fore. Shall we allow hydroponic production to be labeled as organic? Hydroponic systems suspend the roots of plants in water without soil, sometimes within a coarse, neutral, fiber medium for support that mimics a soil environment. The water flowing around the roots is dosed with the soluble nutrients required to make the plant perform. The production system involves enclosed greenhouse-like structures and elaborate gutter systems, pumps, pipes, and technology.

The organic certifiers have already decided that this practice is fine because they are already certifying hydroponic products. There are no uniform federal rules defining organic hydroponics, which should be a problem legally, but certifiers are businesses and businesses do business until government tells them to stop. The USDA staff members are proponents of hydroponics, so they are ignoring the compliance issue, and the National Organic Standards Board in 2009 specifically recommended against hydroponics, leading observers to wonder if the government itself will abide by the law governing the way the USDA program functions. The USDA staff at the National Organic Program is not supposed to “favor” a practice or a substance, or lobby for their adoption. It’s like a football referee wanting more touchdowns.

Organizations like the Organic Consumers Association and Cornucopia argue that soil is fundamental to the federal law that created the National Organic Program and that a soil-less system like hydroponic undermines the traditional basis of organic farming. The law was drawn in 1990 describing an optimal farm environment that improved upon nature and eliminated synthetic materials. Cover cropping—the planting of beneficial plants grown to enhance soil fertility and cure weed problems among other things, crop rotations to prevent disease and insect problems, nutrient management, and common sense features like the prevention of soil erosion have always been the established custom, going back nearly a hundred years.

These concepts are the foundation for organic farming, but is it only for the sake of the soil? When the Organic Foods Production Act was written 27 years ago, some prescribed results were implied in the language. The authors did not explain that in order to maintain livestock health and provide for a wide spectrum of soil-borne nutrients, farm animals should be provided access to pasture. Animal health was the implication, and most of us who were farming organically then did not challenge the wisdom of a law mandating natural systems that promised a good result.

However, in the authorizing legislation, no such promise was implied for human health because the USDA was wary of a double standard for food safety and nutrition, the latter being the dubious responsibility of the Food and Drug Administration in any case. Even “way back” then, rudimentary organic soil science had revealed that a natural system maintained a growing environment that assured complex nutrient availability. One of the chief arguments against hydroponics is that the growing system itself is synthetic, not natural, even though hydro-growers may now promise to provide minute amounts of twenty-seven micro-nutrients in the growing solution. This sounds like the anti-organic rationalization that “plants don’t know the difference” between man-made nutrients and those that naturally occur.

Plants don’t know, but animals do. Why is it that humans are the only species liable to poison itself? One never encounters a herd of deer that have died from eating a bloom of poisonous wild mushrooms or a nice fresh stand of hemlock. What is so darned tasty on the other side of the fence that those cattle are willing to poke their heads through barbed wire to munch on? There seems to be plenty of the same forage where they’re standing. But that ditch does seem rather lush. I guess a lot of the good stuff from that field has migrated over the fence line.

Why do the gophers ignore all the cilantro and head right for the kohlrabi? It’s what these little consumers want.

Industry advocates and environmental allies promote many inarguable benefits from hydroponic food production. It uses a fraction (as little as one tenth) of the water utilized to grow a similar crop. In a controlled environment, there are no soil-borne diseases, therefore no need to purchase remedies that might be harmful to the environment. Even organic remedies are regulated and some, like soluble copper, are of concern when used too frequently. Generally, because of the closed, closely-watched hydro environment, the agricultural input load can be reduced. Champions of hydroponic production prove that more produce can be grown in the same space than traditional agriculture and that the system provides a superior work environment when gravity has finally been conquered and harvesting strawberries can be performed at waist-level. Carbon-conscious enviros can support hydro because no soil is turned.

These are all good things, but they don’t make it organic. They make it innovative and perhaps more responsible on many levels, but it has much more to prove in the long run about food safety.

What calls the admissibility of hydroponics into question in the organic market is its fundamental nature, a system based on plastic infrastructure. The gutters, the greenhouses, the piping—it’s all plastic. Plastic has had a bad rap ever since it became the most remembered word in The Graduate, a stirring little film Mike Nichols made in 1967…right about the time Boomer was getting wise to the con.

Boomer went back to the land. Did everything by hand. Drank out of a glass jug. Grew his own food. Lived in a teepee. Birthed the baby on a blanket on the ground. Fixed things herself. Saved her own seeds.

Twenty-three years later, Boomer had grown herself a consumer base in an international organic market, and, to her everlasting chagrin, she asked the US government to step in and provide uniform definitions for organic and a system of certification and accreditation. The marriage vows maintained in the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990 are the saving grace of this satanic marriage.

In that law, Boomer was gratified to see that plastics were identified wherever used on the farm, and specific exemptions were given when farmers maintained a good relationship with their the plastic. The federal law told the organic farmer that he should never just grind up the plastic at the end of the season (which was more common in that era) but to clean it all up. Boomer was surprised that the brilliant authors of the organic law specifically exempted “…production aids including netting, tree wraps and seals, insect traps, sticky barriers, row covers…”

The author did some careful combing to identify the use of such modest materials. Netting? Really? Now, Boomer thought, this is a serious law when it comes to potential plastic contamination.

We knew much less then about the insidious invasion of polymer nanos into the human biosphere, but we had a hunch that exposure to plastic was not going to play well eventually. Now we have roiling Sargassos of plasticene smoothies contaminating the plankton and every creature down-gullet from them.

Boomer says, see I told you so. We thought we should shy away from poly as much as possible. We still don’t know what it’s doing to us and every other creature. Sure we pick our green beans into plastic buckets and use plastic trays to grow our transplants. We know we’re not perfect. But this particular novelty—as fine as it is in many regards—is too risky because the potent sauce–nitrogen, phosphorous, potassium, sulfur, calcium in combination– feeding the plants, is in constant contact with the plastic surface. It’s not possible there’s any breakdown going on, right?

It’s not like we’re nursing the hydro tomatoes on Kevita. These systems are exposed to the sun and I have seen what the sun does to PVC if left exposed. Intuitively we assumed that any synthetic, even if a semi-stable production structure, should be kept at arms length because we have no means of measuring the harm.

Organic precaution is our chief protection because prohibition has been so difficult to achieve. For five decades the danger, or at least the inconvenience of early mortality due to exposure to synthetics, has been well examined. Business was indomitable so organic was born as an alternative to business as usual. The federal law was nit-picky preclusive about plastic in organic production and, once Boomer has talked to Consumer, there is bound to be blow-back. If Hydro is so cool, let it stand on its own.

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