Are Your Organic Tomatoes Truly ‘Organic’?

By Max Goldberg

When most consumers go to buy organic produce at the supermarket, they do so believing that it has not been sprayed with toxic pesticides.

And many of these individuals also assume that this produce has been grown in nutrient-rich soil.

Increasingly, however, a majority of the organic tomatoes, greens and berries that are sold nationwide are grown in plastic buckets of water, also known as hydroponics.

While there is nothing inherently wrong with hydroponics, it is incredibly problematic when it comes to certifying hydroponically-grown plants as organic.


Not only was organic founded on the basis of growing plants in the soil, but this growing method is a clear violation of Section 6513 of the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990, which was ratified by Congress. It says:

An organic plan shall contain provisions designed to foster soil fertility, primarily through the management of the organic content of the soil through proper tillage, crop rotation, and manuring.

Growing tomatoes in a bucket of water has nothing to do with fostering soil fertility. Nevertheless, the USDA, under immense pressure from hydroponic lobbyists, has allowed this sector to operate—and flourish. Some industry experts believe that the “organic” hydroponic industry is close to a $1 billion sector and that approximately 90% of the organic tomatoes sold at supermarkets nationwide are grown hydroponically.

The Center for Food Safety, one of the organic industry’s most important non-profit organizations, has filed a lawsuit against the USDA over this matter, but it has been a challenging legal battle so far. And as it continues to play out in the courts, organic farmers and consumers continue to suffer the consequences.

Organic farmers that grow their crops in the soil have a very hard time competing in the marketplace against hydroponic operators, as they are forced to operate on an unlevel playing field. This has put many of these soil-based organic farmers in a perilous financial situation.

The long-term effect for consumers is equally as discouraging. As hydroponics continue to gain market share, the availability of soil-grown, organic produce will slowly continue to disappear. And for those of us who believe that “food is medicine” and that nutrition is all about the soil, this is a terrifying prospect.

A few years ago, a group of soil-based organic farmers, who were exasperated with the USDA continuing to allow hydroponics, started a certification called the Real Organic Project (ROP). This is an add-on label that requires a farm to have USDA organic certification as a baseline, but it also prohibits hydroponics—something that the USDA currently allows.

Organic consumers that are concerned about this issue should encourage their local supermarkets to carry ROP-certified products.

It is imperative that soil-grown organic produce is supported and does not disappear.

Max Goldberg is the founder of Organic Insider, one of the most influential newsletters in the organic industry. Max has been called “an organic sensation” by The New York Times, and he has been covering the organic industry for more than a decade.

INCREASINGLY, A MAJORITY OF ORGANIC TOMATOES sold nationwide are grown in plastic buckets of water, called hydroponics, which is problematic when certifying them as organic. Photo by Max Goldberg.
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