The organic food industry raked in $47 billion in sales in the United States last year and it’s about to grow even more.
In November, the US National Organics Standards Board voted to allow high-tech operators growing hydroponics to stay within the National Organic Program. The decision means non-soil farming can be considered “organic” and this has some farmers up in arms.
Why is that such a big deal? While hydroponics does not use chemical fertilisers or pesticides, many organic farmers believe the industry is moving further and further away from its roots. One of the main principles of organic agriculture is to “sustain and enhance the health of the soil, plant, animal and human” based on “living ecological systems and cycles”. The idea of growing food in a room with artificial lights and mineral-enriched water seems to be missing the point.
On this side of the pond, the organic certification organisation in the United Kingdom is called the Soil Association. Its very name recognises the central role of the soil. However, as this new non-soil farming standard comes into existence in the US, one can’t help but wonder if the global industry will follow suit? For those of us who work in communications and sustainability, this undoubtedly presents challenges.
The good news is this challenge is also an opportunity. As more corporations and consumers pay more attention to the organic industry, we can use this as a teachable moment to talk about the crucial role soil plays in addressing climate change. We can educate consumers to look beyond the labels to the true cost of how their food was grown.
The Sustainable Food Trust recently released the Hidden Cost of UK Food Report highlighting an additional £120bn in costs attributed to the damaging impacts of intensive production, environmental pollution, soil degradation, health problems and biodiversity loss in the current food system. Agriculture that increases the carbon organic matter in the soil creates a win-win situation. According to leading soil scientist Rattan Lal, “Putting the carbon back in soil is not only mitigating climate change, but also improving human health, productivity, food security, nutrition security, water quality, air quality — everything.”
In communications, we have to be ready to address these interconnections and consumer education and messaging will be critical. Let’s not be fooled by labels and dig deeper to understand the real power behind how our food is grown. In nature, carbon soil sequestration, a critical step to fighting climate change, starts with healthy soil and there is no replacement for this. Let’s not water it down and keep the dirt in the organic food industry.
Hungry for more food for thought?: Read this recent New York Times Op-ed Soil Power! The Dirty Way to a Green Planet.