The USDA's National Organic Standards Board (NOSB), which determines which products can be certified organic and carry the valuable organic sticker, is leaning against allowing innovative growing systems, such as aquaponics, from the program.
Why? Because, according to their logic, food not grown in soil cannot be organic, even if no pesticides, herbicides or hormones are used. Yet vegetables grown in recirculating systems are proven to have exactly the same nutritional value as any other and are perfectly healthy. Decades of research have shown this. Many vegetables on our store shelves now are grown hydroponically, but this question of plant health or nutritional value has not come up.
In a system like aquaponics, the roots are anchored onto some grow media, such as gravel or coconut fiber. Water flows through this easily, bringing the nutrients required by the plants, especially nitrates, which is a byproduct of the ammonia produced by fish as waste. A root does not care about "soil." It cares about light, heat, structure, water, oxygen, nitrates, phosphorous and potassium. The physical structure of dirt provides an anchor for the roots to grab, but other than that, earth is just a grow medium, the same as gravel or fiber. Give a plant as much of what it needs, and it will grow like crazy.
So where does this notion come from, that plants not grown in the bosom of Mother Earth are somehow not eligible for designation as organic? At least part of the answer comes from a religious belief that soil itself is sacred. According to one NOSB Board member, soil-less systems in Europe and Canada are not permitted to show the organic label because some Board members apparently put belief ahead of reason. The biodynamic movement is tilted in this direction, based on aspects of Rudolph Steiner's philosophy. Steiner is the German founder of Waldorf Schools, which are based on his theory of anthroposophy.
This coming March, the NOSB will formally put forth its recommendations for public comment, then they will make a final judgment. Between now and then various leaders from the aquaculture, hydroponics and greenhouse industries are developing a formal response, with hopes that the NOSB will listen to reason.
The advantages of having the organic label are huge. It will give an official stamp of approval on the concept of aquaponics for entrepreneurs, small and large, who can see its obvious advantages. This will encourage investment and growth of small, decentralized food production, something that is essential to the concept of economic sustainability. The economic value will drive education and practice of urban agriculture and aquaculture, which will in turn create jobs and further investment. More organic food, more local, more involvement of the little guy, which includes inner-city African Americans and rural whites, who generally are not considered part of the organic consumer base.
As a model for this, one need only look at Growing Power in Milwaukee. If you haven't heard of it, it is the quintessential model of the multi-faceted value of urban agriculture.
Get more information on the NOSB board and its process. Any support they receive in favor of an organic stamp for aquaponics will help determine the future of local food. The clock is ticking! If you are a professional in any of fields listed above, please email your formal comments, along with your credentials, to email@example.com.
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