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Editorial

Get Washington out of the organic food business

Some of the hydroponic lettuces growing at Little Leaf Farms in Devens.
Some of the hydroponic lettuces growing at Little Leaf Farms in Devens. Suzanne Kreiter

The federal government would never dream of deciding whether food is kosher. So why is a government panel set to vote on Friday on whether to allow hydroponic foods to call themselves “organic”?

The impending vote has provoked a flurry of controversy in New England, especially among Vermont farmers who believe that only food grown in soil should be labeled organic. They are pressing the National Organic Standards Board to prevent farmers from slapping the organic label on fruits and vegetables grown in hydroponic greenhouses.

Hydroponic growers counter that they don’t use pesticides and may even pose less of an environmental burden than traditional organic farms. According to Merriam-Webster’s dictionary, “organic” means that foods are grown without artificial chemicals. By that standard, some hydroponic foods would qualify.

But has organic ever really been about facts and dictionaries? “The organic movement began as a belief system,” said a federal panel that looked into how to regulate hydroponics. In that belief system, smaller farms are better. Fewer pesticides are better. Natural soil is sacred (though not natural air — greenhouses are OK with most organic farmers). Some of that movement’s tenets now have scientific backing. But the word “organic” on a food label isn’t a scientifically verifiable characteristic like calorie counts or nutrition content.

Still, the government began regulating the word in 1990, after Congress passed the Organic Foods Production Act. By requiring a definition of organic, that law requires the government to confront subjective value judgments like Friday’s vote on hydroponics. Can crops grown in containers of dirt be organic? What about wheat, a crop created by thousands of years of human breeding?

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The Food and Drug Administration is facing a similar problem, as it struggles to define permissible uses of the term “natural” on food packaging. There’s no agreement on what it means to be natural either. In both cases, it’s hard to expect the government to ensure that labels are accurate when there’s no underyling scientific certainty on what the terms mean.

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It would be better for the authorities to focus on ensuring the safety of food and the accuracy of label information about things like nutrition and allergens, while letting consumers figure out for themselves what organic means to them. Farmers who grow crops only in soil and want to market themselves to consumers that way have every right to try, and if enough customers care then they’ll be successful. But asking the federal government to define and enforce the boundaries of personal beliefs is just too much to ask.