Truthout – May 2, 2019 – Alison Rose Levy
In the produce section of my local food co-op sit Driscoll’s berries in their neat little rows: strawberries, blueberries, raspberries, each in plastic clamshells. No other berry options are present on the shelf. Paging the receivers, I ask, “Do we have any non-hydroponically grown berries?”
In response, I am told, “We only have organic berries and organic berries aren’t hydroponic.”
It turns out that’s not always true, at least not anymore. It’s something that organic food consumers find very confusing — and for good reason. Driscoll’s owns 64 percent of the U.S. organic berry market. The company’s signature offering is making berries, formerly seasonal treasures, available year-round.
The California-based Driscoll’s, a global conglomerate, has gained a major foothold in the booming organic segment of the food industry. An aggregator, it works with hundreds of farmers all over the world. The New York Times called the company, “one of the largest hydroponic growers, using the system to grow hundreds of acres of raspberries, blueberries and blackberries.”
In November 2017, after years of pressure, Driscoll’s and its corporate allies in the Organic Trade Association (the group of large companies that now own many organic brands), launched what has become an ongoing redefinition of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA)-regulated Organic Standards at the National Organic Program (NOP). Following its acceptance of hydroponics, the program increasingly allows practices, inputs and products that most organics-seeking consumers want to avoid.
“Organic food is about an entire ecosystem: taking care of the soil, recharging nutrients with crop rotation, [and] providing for natural pollinators and pest control. It is a way for farming, which can often be ecologically destructive, to work with the planet,” writes Dan Nosowitz at Modern Farmer. “Massive hydroponic and container operations like Driscoll’s do not do that: They are willfully separate from the environment.”
With catch phrases, like “share the berry joy,” and “berry lovers unite,” its deft marketing portrays Driscoll’s as fun and community-oriented, but the corporate culture and practices belie this carefully cultivated image. The National Independent Democratic Farm Workers Union, which launched a worldwide boycott, called Driscoll’s “one of the most [exploitative] agricultural companies in the San Quintín Valley, Baja California.” Baja is just one of the many regions around the world where Driscoll’s subsidiary farmers grow the company’s proprietary berry varieties, which are then cooled to near-freezing, stored, trucked and shipped across borders to reach millions of consumers throughout the world. Despite the undisclosed carbon footprint incurred by Driscoll’s global transport, the company boasts of using recycled water, as a key sustainability feature.
One factor that has hastened Driscoll’s market takeover is stiff competition for the limited shelf space in natural food stores and co-ops around the country. Another is the increasing consolidation of food wholesalers. This means that, over time, most small wholesalers have either sold out to — or been driven out of business by — larger conglomerates like Tree of Life and United Food International. Down to just a few giants, public choice is limited.
Nevertheless, it’s not as The New York Times alleged, merely a “turf battle” between Driscoll’s and the farmers who originally devised and still champion the growing methods essential to organics; it’s also about regulations under the National Organics Program. A rare governmental program with popular appeal, from the beginning, the NOP has relied on standards, accountability and small local farming.
During a time of massive deregulation in many areas affecting public and environmental health, the intrusion of hydroponic and container growing into organics undermines its long-standing intention, practices and values, the farmers who spoke to Truthout claim.
“Both the NOP and the National Organic Standards Board failed to enforce … the soil fertility and crop nutrient management practice standard,” Linley Dixon of the Real Organics Project testified at a recent National Organic Standards Board meeting. Organically certified berry farmers are “struggling to stay in business right now because they are losing markets to hydroponic berries under the same organic label, despite extreme differences in cost of production due to the failure to follow soil fertility standards.”
Nevertheless, the newly “certified organic,” hydroponically grown berries, tomatoes and salad greens have crept onto shelves at grocers nationwide, where there is no further requirement that they be labeled as hydroponic, even though there is evidence that many of them are.
Hydro vs. Soil Grown
Thanks to the recent publicity about the Green New Deal, more people are becoming aware of the global trend toward regenerative agriculture — a process which relies on drawing down carbon into the soil to help to mitigate and even reverse the effects of climate change. A complex of plant material, root systems, fungi and microbes link together to create a “soil sponge” that holds in carbon, grows nutritious plants and retains water.
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