In Defense of Soil

woman holding green leafed seedling

“The health of soil, plant, animal and man is one and indivisible”

Lady Eve Balfour | Founder of the Soil Association & IFOAM Co-founder

In 1939, Evelyn Balfour bought a farm. She’d dreamed of being a farmer since the age of twelve. It seemed a strange dream for the niece of a former Prime Minister and the daughter of an Earl to have. During World War I, Evelyn, or “Eve” as she was called, managed a team of land girls who plowed with horses and milked cows by hand to feed Britain, and this experience only strengthened her resolve to live life as a farmer. Deed in hand, her first order of business was to test her theory–that livestock, crops and the soil should be treated as a whole system–by experimenting with “natural” growing methods. She believed that the farmers of her era were becoming too dependent on manufactured fertilizers and that dependence would eventually make farming unsustainable. She believed that the future of mankind depended upon how we treated the soil.

Her experiment resulted in a book, “The Living Soil,” and the founding of two important organizations in the history of organic agriculture: The Soil Association in the U.K., and the International Federation of Organic Agricultural Movements, known as IFOAM. Soil health was the principle upon which those two landmark organizations were founded, and we cannot speak today about organic agriculture without acknowledging the contributions of those two organizations or the veracity of their founding principle.

Today, healthy soils play a leading role in efforts to reverse climate change by functioning as a carbon sequestration sink. Nutrient cycling on organic farms consumes and breaks down carbon, which is reintroduced into the soil to grow new crops. Nutrient cycling also reduces dependency on manufactured inputs that often begin as materials that must be mined from the ground using fossil fuels and environmentally destructive practices, then shipped halfway around the globe for further chemical manufacturing and consumption.

In spite of the founding principle that building healthy soils through natural methods is fundamental to organic agriculture world-wide, the current position of the National Organic Program is that certification of hydroponic & container-grown production systems is allowed as long as the producer can demonstrate compliance with the organic regulations. OneCert and a number of other organic certification agencies find this stance fundamentally at odds with itself because the current organic regulations read as follows:

§205.203   Soil fertility and crop nutrient management practice standard.(a) The producer must select and implement tillage and cultivation practices that maintain or improve the physical, chemical, and biological condition of soil and minimize soil erosion. (b) The producer must manage crop nutrients and soil fertility through rotations, cover crops, and the application of plant and animal materials. (c) The producer must manage plant and animal materials to maintain or improve soil organic matter content in a manner that does not contribute to contamination of crops, soil, or water by plant nutrients, pathogenic organisms, heavy metals, or residues of prohibited substances.

It is difficult to imagine how a farm might put these management methods into practice if their farming methods don’t utilize the natural soil of the farm! World-wide, other organic standards echo the importance of maintaining or improving soil health as fundamental to organic farming. For example, the IFOAM Regulations state, “The production of terrestrial plants shall be soil-based. The production of such crops in hydroponic systems is prohibited. ‘Soil-based’ means that apart from the propagation or seedling stages, a plant must spend its life in the soil. For herbs, flowers and ornamentals in pots that are sold directly to the final consumer, the CB [certifying body] can allow production on permitted growing media.

There are many proponents of hydroponic production who say that hydroponic methods are the future of food because they claim to use less water and fewer resources than conventional farming methods. It’s unclear if direct comparisons between organic farming methods and hydroponic production have been conducted to determine whether claims of reduced water & resource use hold up to scrutiny. For some applications, hydroponic growing may be genuinely useful, but just because something is useful doesn’t mean it’s organic. There are still some key problems with hydroponic growing methods that make it incompatible with the fundamental principle of organic farming:

  • The climate-controlled environment needed to produce hydroponic & container crops consumes huge amounts of energy.
  • Hydroponic production requires the highest quality water–water that could be put to better use as drinking water.
  • Hydroponic facilities are highly technology-dependent, making them a “first world” production method not achievable in places with less infrastructure. It’s important to the planet that people world-wide are able to practice organic growing methods. A simple power outage may destroy an entire hydroponic crop.
  • This growing method is entirely dependent upon purchased fertilizers.
  • Mistakes and system malfunctions affect plants faster with no soil present to act as a buffer. Water-borne diseases spread quickly.
  • The cost of installing a hydroponic system and maintaining it is enormous.

Lady Eve Balfour once said that the main feature of an organic farming system was “permanence”–that is, the ability for a system to sustain itself indefinitely. Sustainable farming techniques like crop rotation, composting, and the use of cover crops, green manures, and intercropping are all valuable to the ecological systems they serve because they employ the interplay of natural cycles involving soil-dwelling and land-dwelling organisms key to planetary biodiversity.

Permanence is certainly not a feature synonymous with hydroponic and container systems that rely on a symphony of perfectly timed and mechanized feedings and temperature changes. Hydroponic production methods cloister agriculture away from life on this planet in a well-lit and climate-controlled closet where it would seem crops are safe from every pest and disease–but yet vulnerable to any minor malfunction of technology. Reliance on this “future of food” may be a great set-up for an episode of “Black Mirror,” but it’s out of alignment with the historically ecologically protective goals of organic agriculture.