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Nadworny: The Wrong Problem

There’s an interesting debate happening here in Vermont and elsewhere on what the label “Organic” actually means. Hydroponic growers want to mark their produce organic if they don’t use pesticides or unwanted chemicals in their process. Traditional organic farmers have pushed back, claiming that only produce grown in soil deserves the highly valued organic label.

We consumers care mostly about what we eat. And organic food eaters want to know that their food doesn’t contain undesirable chemicals. But what’s so fascinating about hydroponic organics is that the argument has NOTHING to do with food. The debate stems from how regulators tried to solve one challenge by addressing another a while back.

Hydroponic crops grow in a mineral nutrient solution mixed in a water solvent. There’s no dirt involved. And publications like the New Yorker might quickly persuade you that hydroponics are the wave of the future: producing healthy local food with a minimum of water.

When federal regulators had to figure out when to call something organic, hydroponics wasn’t yet a significant reality, and the main goal was simply to ensure that certain chemicals didn’t make it into the produce. Then, to make sure people followed the rules, you had to regulate, measure, and, of course, test.

But testing the actual food you’re trying to make safe is an expensive and perhaps unreliable task; it’s much easier to simply test the soil. I imagine the thinking must have gone something like this: if we make sure there are no chemicals in the soil, then they can’t get into the food we grow.

It’s pretty logical - and basically why the organic label deals with soil and not the produce itself. So now with hydroponics, organic farmers argue that the primary intent of the organic label is – or should be – to protect the soil.

And here’s where things start to border on the absurd. If we really wanted to regulate prime soil, we’d likely recommend not cultivating any produce in it, at all. Perhaps we’d help the soil by planting trees, but probably not by planting tomatoes, carrots or broccoli in it. So in the Organic Label debate – we have to ask ourselves what problem we’re really trying to solve.

When we lose sight of an original problem, sometimes even the most well-intentioned remedies have odd and unintended consequences.

Rich Nadworny is a designer who resides in Burlington and Stockholm.
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