Allegations have surfaced that some organic hydroponic operations are using glyphosate, the active ingredient in Bayer’s (formerly Monsanto's) Roundup, despite the herbicide being forbidden in organic operations. According to information from the Real Organic Project, a coalition of organic advocates committed to soil-based farming, hydroponic growers awaiting organic certification have been spraying glyphosate on fields prior to constructing their greenhouses in order to remove aggressive weeds more easily.
“One farmer watched it happening in a neighboring farm, another heard the hydroponic grower talk about it during a university extension workshop,” says Dave Chapman, a Vermont organic tomato farmer and executive director of the Real Organic Project. “Everyone knows about it, and we’re very concerned.”
The evidence in favor of this happening is sparse, and no names have been named by the Project. However, Civil Eats reports, these allegations have indeed brought to light an unfortunate loophole concerning hydroponic operations.
“It turns out federal organic rules don’t explicitly prohibit hydroponic growers from spraying prior to certification,” reports Civil Eats. “In fact, there are no standards for hydroponics in the rules.”
Hydroponic growers have also notably been given a blanket exemption from the three-year transition period required for organic farmers, making the transition far less onerous and therefore allowing hydroponic operations to produce organic food more cheaply than their soil-based peers.
Jennifer Tucker, deputy administrator of the National Organic Program, confirms this to Civil Eats, saying, “The three-year transition rule applies to a soil-based system. A greenhouse does not need to go through the three-year transition period.”
“If you see cheap ‘organic’ tomatoes or berries out of season in your area, those are almost certainly hydroponically grown!" says Marie Burcham, an attorney and the director of domestic policy for organic watchdog group the Cornucopia Institute. "They are often so cheap, they are putting real organic farmers—farmers who care about the health of the land they farm—out of business.”
Factions of the organic industry have long fought against allowing hydroponic operations to be certified. In 2017, the National Organic Standards Board failed to pass a recommendation to prohibit hydroponics from achieving the certification.
“The NOP’s argument in this case seems to be that because the glyphosate does not ‘touch’ the plants being certified, it is all above board—or at least legally defensible,” writes the Cornucopia Institute. The group condemns these practices and this defense, noting that glyphosate can contaminate non-target plants and the soil.
“Sustainable and ethical food production is rooted in the soil microbiome,” says Helen Kees, organic farmer and Cornucopia’s Board President. “It is the engine of fertility that works in symbiosis with the plants to produce food that nourishes us all. Without this microbiome, there would be no life as we know it on Earth.”
In 2015, the World Health Organization deemed glyphosate a probable human carcinogen. Last year, a California court ordered Bayer to pay $78 million to a former public school groundskeeper who had contracted terminal cancer after applying the herbicide in the course of his employ.
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