Soil: the Most Important Piece of the Organic Puzzle

Soil: the Most Important Piece of the Organic Puzzle

There’s been quite a bit of debate about what organic really means, of late. The biggest issue: can an ethical farmer grow hydroponically or in pots and realistically sport the USDA organic label? The simple answer is – and must always be – no… for the very simple reason that these operations do not protect one of our most limited and valuable agricultural resources: our soil.

The phrase “dirt cheap” is quickly becoming a contradiction in terms: dirt – at least if it’s good dirt – is becoming rarer and rarer. Only 25 percent of the earth’s surface is made up of soil; of that, only 10 percent can be used to grow food, and much of that is currently in distress.

Soil, at its best, is made up of a complex ecosystem of bugs, bacteria, and fungi, all of which work in symbiosis: healthy soil creates a safe living environment for these organisms which, in turn, make the soil richer and stronger, with nutrients that plants can soak up, therefore becoming healthier themselves.

But in recent years, our soil has become inundated with chemicals like insecticides and herbicides that can create imbalances. Add to that our modern farming love for monocultures that seep nutrients from the soil and give nothing back. Adding nutrients back to the soil with compost is a good solution, but only if this compost comes from healthy sources, which is usually not the case.

Perhaps the most surprising thing of all: these issues are not just stemming from big, bad, Big Ag, but also from USDA organic operations.

The History of the USDA Organic Label and Soil

There was a time when the organic label focused on soil. There is even language in the Organic Foods Production Act (OFPA) of 1990 (section 6513 b-1) – requiring organic farmers to foster soil fertility, “primarily through the management of the organic content of the soil through proper tillage, crop rotation, and manuring.”

But while the National Organic Standards Board, which advises the USDA on organic rules and regulations, has no qualms about outlawing dangerous pesticides like glyphosate or harmful additives like carrageenan, it seems that the Board has a bit of a blind spot when it comes to soil – not just by refusing to enforce these soil-building measures, but by considering the possibility that hydroponics and container growing systems could be considered organic.

“There is a dilution,” explains Ryland Engelhart, founder of the soil-focused non-profit Kiss the Ground, “Based on more and more people’s interests and how to monetize organic, scale it really big, and make it mechanical and not ecological. The organic standard has turned more into just a list of what you can’t use, as opposed to practices and philosophies to use to make a resilient environmental, ecological soil health system.”

“They make the argument that they want to grow organics, and at any cost,” says Linley Dixon, PhD, Food and Farm Policy Analyst at the organic watchdog group the Cornucopia Institute, of some current members of the NOSB. “And in order to do that, they’re saying that the law is mainly about inputs.”

While large-scale organic farms, for the most part, follow rules about these “inputs” – which pesticides they can and cannot use, what they can and cannot feed animals – they also tend to produce monocultures or focus only on raising livestock, thus divorcing the farm from the land: livestock farmers are left with more manure than they know what to do with, and crop farmers need to till far too much and outsource manure from other operations to build rapidly depleting soil.

“We end up with 25 Band-Aids stacked on top of each other,” says Engelhart of this approach. “Not a healthy nature, not a healthy farm, not a healthy soil.”

How to Grow Soil Health and Organics

Some experts claim that the best way to resolve this issue is to create a whole new label. “Regenerative agriculture” is a term that’s being bandied about in some circles, highlighting farms that, for example, may spray with an herbicide a few times a year, but are building soil resources at epic speeds through no-till methods.

“The pure and organic folks are like, no, we can’t allow that in, because that will just allow the whole conventional industry to co-opt the whole thing,” says Engelhart.

It seems an impasse has been reached: while it would be a shame to turn our backs on farmers growing soil health, even if they are occasionally adding unapproved chemicals to their land, so too would it be a shame to focus time, energy, and resources on creating a new label, when the USDA organic label finally has so much integrity and meaning to consumers.

“To just move on to something else is a tragedy, and we’ll basically lose ground – literally and figuratively,” explains Engelhart. “Regenerative agriculture will just turn into the new natural or the new sustainable, which means nothing.”

The answer, then, is to help the USDA organic label and the regenerative mindset find one another.

In Engelhart’s mind, this would require the NOSB to take note of existing provisions for soil health, with mandates requiring no or low tilling, no bare soil, no hydroponics, and no monocultures. Even farms devoted to producing only one crop can and should use multi-species cover-cropping methods to avoid the erosion caused by bare ground and to reinforce the health of the soil.

Of course, for any of these things to happen, there has to be soil, first and foremost. As the debate over hydroponics continues, a clear answer – and a clear first step towards rebuilding soil health – has emerged.

“Soilless systems are not organic systems, because they are removed from the regenerative organic practices that capture carbon and nitrogen from the atmosphere into the soil,” the Cornucopia Institute wrote to the NOSB on this subject. “Soilless, hydroponic/container growing is not necessarily ‘bad,’ it simply isn’t organic by law.”

In the meantime, consumers would do well to stay conscious of where their food comes from. Choose small, diverse farmers using best practices for crop rotation and no to low tilling… and continue to demand more from the USDA organic label.

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Emily Monaco

Emily Monaco is an American food and culture writer based in Paris. She loves uncovering the stories behind ingredients and exposing the face of our food system, so that consumers can make educated choices. Her work has been published in the Wall Street Journal, Vice Munchies, and Serious Eats.