How do you like your organic in the Finger Lakes?

Can a tomato grown in a nutrient solution instead of dirt be called “organic?” Is organic farming about more than eschewing synthetic pesticides?

Those questions are at the root of debate raging in the organic produce industry. The debate recently heated up when the National Organic Standards Board (a group that advises the U.S. Department of Agriculture) voted this fall against a proposal to exclude hydroponics and aquaponics — the raising of plants without soil and fish using the same water — from the USDA’s organic certification program.

Many traditional organic farmers and their supporters said allowing hydroponic farms to be certified organic erodes the integrity of the $16 billion U.S. organic produce industry.

“I don’t know a single organic farmer who thinks it’s a good idea,” said Petra Page-Mann, owner of Fruition Seeds in Naples. “It’s a clear indication that the organic label serves industrial interests valuing profit over people and planet.”

Page-Mann and others believe organic farming is about far more than not using toxic pesticides; it’s rooted in enhancing the fertility of soils, a concept developed in the early 20th century by pioneering organic farmers. Organic farmers worked hard to create the National Organic Program in 2000, an achievement they said is now being watered down by allowing hydroponic farms to be part of it.

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