Organic Matter

The organic food industry is a multi-billion-dollar business. In the U.S., consumers prioritize certification stickers and labels. But according to longtime organic farmers like Paul Muller of Full Belly Farms in Capay Valley near Sacremento, labels can be misleading if consumers aren’t reading between the lines.

For Muller, it comes down to dirt. That’s because the National Organic Standards Board, which advises the U.S. Department of Agriculture, is breaking from a long-held position: Soilless farming isn’t organic farming.

In 2010, the USDA did not heed the NOSB’s advice and allowed soilless (think aquaponic and hydroponic) growers to pursue organic certification. But in November of 2017, the NOSB reversed course, and in an 8-7 vote, sided with hydroponic farmers (though they did vote against allowing aeroponic producers to pursue organic certification).

Muller, who produces vegetables, fruit and wool, was in the minority on that vote. “[Organic farmers] saw ourselves as stewards of ecosystems,” he says. “Soil health is key.”

While Muller sees benefits to hydroponic farming – it’s less land-intensive and water-intensive – he thinks the classic organic definition should hold. “Organic is a good system,” he says. “Don’t reduce the confidence of the consumer.”

Muller delivers that message at Asilomar Conference Grounds on Jan. 24 when he speaks at the 39th annual EcoFarm conference, a three-day gathering of hundreds of organic farmers from across the country hosted by the Ecological Farming Association. This year’s theme is “Resilience is Fertile.”

In the session titled “What’s Real Organic?” Muller presents alongside Dave Chapman, a Vermont farmer, on the Real Organic Project. The initiative launched in 2018 and seeks to create an add-on label that would go beyond the USDA’s definition of organic, taking soil and soil health into consideration.

Other EcoFarm sessions from Jan. 24-26 cover topics like California groundwater policy, the emerging cannabis market and food safety regulations.

Marielle Argueza is a staff writer and calendar editor for the Weekly. She covers education, immigration and culture. Additionally, she covers the areas of Marina and South County. She occasionally writes about food and runs the internship program.

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