The global organic farming market is expected to hit $103 billion dollars this year, up 8% from last year. In the U.S., part of the growth is due to high-tech indoor farming. The growing trend is raising questions about the true meaning of organic.
Organic shoppers rely on the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) “organic” label to buy their produce. What they likely don’t know is that more and more of it is grown hydroponically, aquaponically, or in containers, all techniques that do not use soil.
Paul Muller is co-owner of Full Belly Farm, a 500-acre farm northeast of Sacramento that’s been growing certified organic produce for 38 years. Eighty varieties of organic vegetables, fruits and nuts grow here, sold locally to Bay Area supermarkets and farmers markets.
“There’s a whole system that we are farming, stewarding, fostering,” said Muller. “If you look out here and just stop for a bit, these plants are covered in bees who are out doing their pollinating.”
Some 100 miles south in Half Moon Bay, Ken Armstrong also grows pesticide-free produce that he sells to local restaurants. He’s not certified organic, though he could be. He says it’s too much red tape. But Armstrong believes the aquaponic farming method he is using is equally natural and delicious.
So what is organic? What it really comes down to is the label. Organic farmers have to follow strict organic rules to get an “Organic” sticker put on their produce. With it, they can charge a premium. But the USDA issued a statement a few years back that changed the playing field: It allowed large-scale indoor growers to get certified as organic. That put the squeeze on traditional outdoor organic farmers, who are crying foul.
“Farming is hard and people are always thinking about a better way to do it in organic agriculture. But if it’s a little too innovative, then you have somebody complaining,” said Daniel Sumner, an agricultural economist and professor at the University of California, Davis.
“When it comes to organic, a big part of it is the image. We are in an era where people don’t brag about the technology. If anything they want to talk about wholesomeness and safety and all those things, rather than the technology that creates it,” said Sumner. “So it doesn’t surprise me that people in the food industry these days aren’t telling you about their technology.”
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