A ruling from the USDA’s National Organic Standards Board solidifies that hydroponics and other types of high-tech farming can be considered “organic.”

Fresh produce
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What does “organic” mean to you? Likely the main component most consumers consider is that no pesticides are used to grow organic produce. But USDA requirements for organic certification go well beyond pest and disease control: Rules also exist for things like the land being used and crop rotation. As a result, hydroponics and other types of high-tech indoor farming raise an interesting question: Can produce be “organic” when the method used to grow it doesn’t really seem natural at all?

The National Organic Standards Board, the 15-person Federal Advisory Board that helps dictate USDA policy on all things organic, has been considering this question for quite some time. In fact, in 2010, the panel recommended that soilless growing not be allowed to earn an organic seal, a recommendation the USDA chose not to follow at that time. But this week, a proposed ban on the use of hydroponic methods in organic farming was voted down by the slimmest of margins, 8 - 7, sending a more unified message on where the USDA and the NOSB stands.

At the heart of the debate isn’t the “health halo” that many consumers worry about when buying organic. Instead, traditional organic farmers are concerned about the broader importance of natural farming practices to the environment. Abby Youngblood, executive director of the National Organic Coalition, told NPR that opening the floodgates to organic hydroponics goes against “the founding principles of organic, which are really about soil health, regenerating the soil.”

But Jessie Gunn, a representative for the company Wholesum Harvest which grows vegetables in high-tech greenhouses, argued that hydroponics has its own benefits. “We can grow our tomatoes organically with 3 to 5 gallons of water, per pound of production, as opposed to growing tomatoes in open fields, which can use anywhere from 26 to 37 gallons of water,” she explained. “I mean, what is the true essence of organic?”

And that, of course, is the big question: Different groups, different companies and different individuals all have different priorities when it comes to their expectations from organic products. And though organic goods have their environmental benefits, they’ve also become big business along the way. A lot is at stake on all sides – over a debate that in some ways comes down to semantics. And at least one organic farmer, Dave Chapman, told the Washington Post that a change of phrasing might be traditional organic farming’s next step. “The question is, do we abandon the National Organic Program and find a new way to identify ourselves?” Chapman asked. “It’s a genuine question. I don’t know.”