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‘Organic’ tag on water-raised produce raises ire |

‘Organic’ tag on water-raised produce raises ire

Alice T. Carter
| Saturday, April 25, 2015 12:01 a.m
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FIREBAUGH, CA - APRIL 23: Farmer Joe Del Bosque stands next to a row of newly planted organic tomatoes on April 23, 2015 in Firebaugh, California. As California enters its fourth year of severe drought, farmers in the Central Valley are struggling to keep their crops watered and many have opted to leave acres of the fields fallow. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

WASHINGTON — Consumers associate the word “organic” with healthy and safe, and that sounds simple enough.

But exactly what kind of food should get the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s “organic” label has been the subject of repeated controversies, and some of the fiercest divisions have opened recently over the eerily beautiful, scar-free produce that is grown in controlled water-based environments — that is, with the roots of the plants resting in covered water tanks rather than soil.

These methods, valued for their efficiency and reliability, have produced sometimes flawless lettuce and tomatoes that are sold in supermarkets.

But critics say that because these so-called aquaponic and hydroponic systems depend entirely on what humans put into the water, the produce they generate offers less nutritional value than the produce generated by plants grown in rich soil.

“Those heads of lettuce that are grown indoors? Yes, they’re beautiful. But it’s just a green leaf with water in it,” said Jeff Moyer, longtime farm director of the Rodale Institute, an organic research outfit. “They can’t possibly have the vitamins and minerals that lettuce grown in soil would have.”

Despite the objections of its organic advisory board, the USDA has decided that the produce generated by such systems is worthy of the valuable organic label, as long as the other organic guidelines are followed. The designation allows the farmers to charge a premium of as much as 30 percent or more.

The debate over aquaponics and hydroponics is one front in much broader war over what may be sold as “organic.”

On Friday, the Cornucopia Institute, a nonprofit group representing some farmers and other interests, called for the resignation of the chief of the USDA’s National Organic Program, citing the aquaponics decision and other issues. The focus of Cornucopia’s discontent is the way in which the USDA has, in its view, ignored the recommendations of the organic advisory board, a 15-member panel created by Congress to help shape the organic rules. Board members and USDA officials have also differed on an array of topics including how animals should be treated and what kinds of synthetic materials may be added to organic products.

The contest has often split the organic world into multiple camps, sometimes pitting smaller outfits against larger, more corporate entities. “Although the USDA ignored some of the board recommendations in the past, until recently they never went 180 degrees in the opposite direction in deference to the preferences of powerful corporate interests,” Kevin Engelbert, a former board member from Nichols, N.Y., said in a statement.

A spokesman for the USDA noted that the government is convening a special task force to reconsider the water-based systems. “Emerging technologies in hydroponic and aquaponic production have prompted (the USDA) to seek the most current information and opinions of industry experts,” the department said.

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