Hydroponically Grown Produce Threatens Real Organic Agriculture

In the produce section of my local food co-op sit Driscoll’s berries in their neat little rows: strawberries, blueberries, raspberries, each in plastic clamshells. No other berry options are present on the shelf. Paging the receivers, I ask, “Do we have any non-hydroponically grown berries?”

In response, I am told, “We only have organic berries and organic berries aren’t hydroponic.”

It turns out that’s not always true, at least not anymore. It’s something that organic food consumers find very confusing — and for good reason. Driscoll’s owns 64 percent of the U.S. organic berry market. The company’s signature offering is making berries, formerly seasonal treasures, available year-round.

The California-based Driscoll’s, a global conglomerate, has gained a major foothold in the booming organic segment of the food industry. An aggregator, it works with hundreds of farmers all over the world. The New York Times called the company, “one of the largest hydroponic growers, using the system to grow hundreds of acres of raspberries, blueberries and blackberries.”

In November 2017, after years of pressure, Driscoll’s and its corporate allies in the Organic Trade Association (the group of large companies that now own many organic brands), launched what has become an ongoing redefinition of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA)-regulated Organic Standards at the National Organic Program (NOP). Following its acceptance of hydroponics, the program increasingly allows practices, inputs and products that most organics-seeking consumers want to avoid.

“Organic food is about an entire ecosystem: taking care of the soil, recharging nutrients with crop rotation, [and] providing for natural pollinators and pest control. It is a way for farming, which can often be ecologically destructive, to work with the planet,” writes Dan Nosowitz at Modern Farmer. “Massive hydroponic and container operations like Driscoll’s do not do that: They are willfully separate from the environment.”

With catch phrases, like “share the berry joy,” and “berry lovers unite,” its deft marketing portrays Driscoll’s as fun and community-oriented, but the corporate culture and practices belie this carefully cultivated image. The National Independent Democratic Farm Workers Union, which launched a worldwide boycott, called Driscoll’s “one of the most [exploitative] agricultural companies in the San Quintín Valley, Baja California.” Baja is just one of the many regions around the world where Driscoll’s subsidiary farmers grow the company’s proprietary berry varieties, which are then cooled to near-freezing, stored, trucked and shipped across borders to reach millions of consumers throughout the world. Despite the undisclosed carbon footprint incurred by Driscoll’s global transport, the company boasts of using recycled water, as a key sustainability feature.

One factor that has hastened Driscoll’s market takeover is stiff competition for the limited shelf space in natural food stores and co-ops around the country. Another is the increasing consolidation of food wholesalers. This means that, over time, most small wholesalers have either sold out to — or been driven out of business by — larger conglomerates like Tree of Life and United Food International. Down to just a few giants, public choice is limited.

Nevertheless, it’s not as The New York Times alleged, merely a “turf battle” between Driscoll’s and the farmers who originally devised and still champion the growing methods essential to organics; it’s also about regulations under the National Organics Program. A rare governmental program with popular appeal, from the beginning, the NOP has relied on standards, accountability and small local farming.

During a time of massive deregulation in many areas affecting public and environmental health, the intrusion of hydroponic and container growing into organics undermines its long-standing intention, practices and values, the farmers who spoke to Truthout claim.

“Both the NOP and the National Organic Standards Board failed to enforce … the soil fertility and crop nutrient management practice standard,” Linley Dixon of the Real Organics Project testified at a recent National Organic Standards Board meeting. Organically certified berry farmers are “struggling to stay in business right now because they are losing markets to hydroponic berries under the same organic label, despite extreme differences in cost of production due to the failure to follow soil fertility standards.”

Nevertheless, the newly “certified organic,” hydroponically grown berries, tomatoes and salad greens have crept onto shelves at grocers nationwide, where there is no further requirement that they be labeled as hydroponic, even though there is evidence that many of them are.

Hydro vs. Soil Grown

Thanks to the recent publicity about the Green New Deal, more people are becoming aware of the global trend toward regenerative agriculture — a process which relies on drawing down carbon into the soil to help to mitigate and even reverse the effects of climate change. A complex of plant material, root systems, fungi and microbes link together to create a “soil sponge” that holds in carbon, grows nutritious plants and retains water.

But soil is sparse when individual berry plants are grown in acres of plastic or coconut husk-filled plastic containers in climate-controlled warehouses or vast fields. Instead of sucking up nutrients from the Earth, the seedlings and plants receive liquid feed through circulating plastic tubing.

Driscoll’s then-Executive Vice President Soren Bjorn defended its practices, telling The New York Times that, “’growing the produce hydroponically was hardly different from what the company does when it grows its berries in sandy soils. Part of the benefit of that is there’s no disease in the soil, but there’s also very little nutrition in sand,’ he said. ‘So for certain kinds of berries, we add the vast majority of nutrients through irrigation.’”

According to Dave Chapman, executive director of the Real Organic Project, what defines hydroponics is the nutrition the plant receives. Whether it’s grown in plastic tubing or plastic pots lined with coconut husks, “when a plant gets all or most of its nutrition from a liquid feed, that’s hydroponic growing,” Chapman tells Truthout.

Plants have evolved over 100 million years to be nourished by complex soil ecology. “Hydroponic [growing] is simple, and that’s what makes it attractive to producers,” Chapman says. “The liquid feed contains fertilizers typically allowed in organic production but never intended to supply the plant’s entire nutrition. It’s like people taking a supplement — a tiny amount at a particular time, rather than living on supplements. In organics, these fertilizers were never intended to replace nutrition from soil.”

Most “consumers have no way of knowing which products were grown in soil using traditional farming practices and which were raised in indoor greenhouses without soil because there are no regulations mandating labeling or signage in stores,” said Mark Kastel, co-founder of the Cornucopia Institute, which educates the public on agricultural issues. Nor do “major hydroponic brands, such as Driscoll’s and Wholesum Harvest mention production methods on cases or product labels.”

In the organic food industry, where each term and method is defined, it’s an anomaly to find both store buyers and consumers uncertain about how Driscoll’s “certified organic” berries are grown. Even though the company spent seven years strenuously lobbying to get hydroponics accepted as organics, at the time of writing, Driscoll’s website states that it does not engage in any hydroponic growing whatsoever. “They know that this is not what people want,” Chapman tells Truthout.

Is There a Difference?

When they land on grocery shelves, are hydroponic blueberries the same as soil-grown organic ones? It’s hard to know, says Northeast Organic Farming Association of New York board member and long-term organic farmer Elizabeth Henderson, because, “There are actually no standards for using hydroponic methods.”

A 2003 study published in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry compared hydroponic and conventional field-produced lettuce, and found that the hydroponic lettuce “had significantly lower lutein, β-carotene, violaxanthin, and neoxanthin contents than the conventionally produced lettuce.” Additionally, organic produce has been found to be more nutrient-dense than conventionally grown produce, while hydroponic produce is the least nutrient-dense of the three options: organic, conventional and hydroponic.

Hydroponics’ main claim to organic status is that its berries are grown herbicide- and pesticide-free.

In conventional growing, “You fumigate the ground, you use herbicides and pesticides, and it’s a lot easier to ensure these plants are pest and disease-free,” Driscoll’s Bjorn told FreshFruitPortal.com. Otherwise, “If you only used organic plant material, you would move certain pests around.” Accordingly, “The organic berry sector has been able to source conventional plant material due to an exemption, designed to ensure businesses would survive and fields would stay free of pest or disease threats,” Bjorn admitted.

So Driscoll’s does not begin its berry cultivation with organic plants, as soil-grown organic berry growers do, because they are more prone to infestation. But what happens next?

Traditional organic growers avoid the need for pesticides and herbicides by building biologically diverse soil and on-farm ecosystems to maintain plant health and resilience. These methods are what often make organic foods cost more.

But hydroponic and container growing lack the “checks and balances of a complex system with all that rich microbiology living in the soil. This makes it easier for weeds and pests to become a problem,” Chapman tells Truthout. “That’s why hydro and container berries are very prone to disease and insects. The solutions are fungicides and pesticides. In a real organic system, not needing a pesticide is the result of how you farm, not what gives you the right to define your methods as organic.”

At a recent Organic Farmers Association meeting, Chapman confronted National Organic Program Deputy Administrator Jennifer Tucker, sharing accounts from farmers that glyphosate, the principle ingredient in Monsanto’s Roundup — which a draft federal report released this month confirms as a carcinogen — is being sprayed on fields slated for certified organic hydroponic berry production. “The way this use of herbicide is incorporated into ‘organic’ certification is to laser-level a field, compact it until it is like a parking lot, wait a little while until the weeds (that always follow disturbed soil) have germinated, and then spray it with an herbicide,” Chapman told Tucker. Tucker, however, could not confirm that spraying with such herbicides prior to organic certification is prohibited after Chapman pressed her on the issue.

Since the inception of the National Organic Program, organic growers have been required to prepare their farmland for between two to three years in order to meet organic standards. Moreover, Driscoll’s website explicitly states that, “To be considered certified, land must be free of chemical inputs for at least three years prior to certification and farmers must exclude the use of synthetic pesticides, herbicides, fertilizers or genetic engineering.”

Yet, without any written change in policy, Tucker confirmed that the USDA now reserves the right to determine, on a case-by-case basis, whether berry growers can spray the ground with glyphosate immediately before planting. Apparently, a plastic pot with coconut husks placed on plastic sheeting is not being required to meet those same standards.

At an April 24 meeting of the National Organic Standards Board in Seattle, Phil LaRocca, chair of the Board of Directors of the California Certified Organic Farmers, the largest organic certifier in the U.S., confirmed reports of glyphosate spraying, and expressed outrage at NOP’s leniency.

Cost-cutting practices widely used in conventional monocrop agriculture to produce nutrient-poor but cheap food are not what consumers expect from the certified organic label. Although changes in organic regulations are impacting hydroponics, dairy, poultry and eggs, most other produce labeled organic is indeed organic, putting the hard-earned label on products that fail to follow almost two decades of established practices is “perpetrating a fraud on organic customers,” Chapman says. “Being able to spray glyphosate and still sell it as organic is an enormous economic advantage.”

All this has led to Driscoll’s unchecked dominance in berry sourcing, which has allowed the company to build up a level of market control that undermines the organic label, constrains food variety, nutrient value, health, biodiversity and environmental integrity — all while decimating its competition.

But who is the “competition?” The legions of small, local farmers across the country and across the world who have pioneered organics, brought them to consumers, built a global appetite for such food, and who find it harder and harder to survive under market-bound governments that reward monopolies.

“Millions of people in America are hunting for authentic soil-grown organic berries. They are beautiful and delicious…. And farmers that grow them are literally being put out of business by very large operations,” Chapman says.

Moreover, with farmer bankruptcies and suicides steadily rising in the U.S., organic farmer Henderson warns that, “The real people who grow, pick and send you the beautiful food that appears on a store’s shelves are hovering on the brink of poverty.”

Now it’s up to organic consumers to determine what matters most: Acting to safeguard organic regulations? Supporting local farmers and regenerative agriculture? Or having “organic” berries year-round?