Can soil-free farms ever be organic?

Shmorganic. Yet another home kitchen countertop grow system has entered the market, promising “local food” with a wink (get it?) and rebuking rotten produce (“what an incredible waste”) in its marketing materials. But the gadget’s ability to nurture plant life in my dark, dank kitchen is neither here nor there. What may wind up prematurely tanking this indoor garden is all in its name, “Organiponic.” There’s a fight brewing in the organic standards world over whether or not plants grown without soil can ever be certified organic, and the biannual meeting that’ll potentially decide their fate is happening just two weeks from now.

Even Bernie Sanders sent a representative.

It may seem hair-splitty, but the conversation about whether or not soil-free farms can ever be organic has been going on for a while now. The digest version: in 2010, the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) formally recommended that hydroponic and aquaponic farms not be included in organic certifications, claiming that soil is a necessary component of organic growth. The USDA’s National Organics Program didn’t adopt that recommendation, and some organic certifiers are putting their stamp of approval on hydroponic farms, both domestically and abroad.

Now, the Cornucopia Institute (an organic industry watchdog) has filed a legal complaint against USDA and other big businesses (think Driscoll’s) asking for an investigation into the certification of hydroponic operations. It argues that hydroponics are largely imported, grown at industrial scale, and produced using artificial nutrients and light.

Keep an eye on this one. Aquaponics and hydroponics are gaining traction as a high-yield, low-input alternative to traditional farming, and it’s important to note the folks on the organic side of the debate aren’t anti-hydro. They just don’t want hydroponics to also be certified organic. A “rally in the valley”  was held in Vermont this past weekend to oppose—here’s where it comes full circle—organiponics (the potential certification, not the company). The rally drew some pretty heavy hitters: organic farmer Eliot Coleman and Rep. Chellie Pingree (D-ME) both spoke, and even Bernie Sanders sent a representative.

H. Claire Brown is a senior staff writer for The Counter. Her work has also appeared in The Atlantic, The Guardian, and The Intercept and has won awards from the Society for Advancing Business Editing and Writing, the New York Press Club, the Newswomen's Club of New York, and others. A North Carolina native, she now lives in Brooklyn.