What makes an organic fruit or vegetable organic?

That’s the question currently facing the National Organic Standards Board when it comes to hydroponically grown produce – fruits and vegetables grown in water, without soil.

The advisory board met this week to discuss the issue before providing a recommendation to the USDA. In the end, a USDA spokesman said the board voted to send the question of hydroponics back to a subcommittee for further review – declining to provide a formal recommendation to the USDA.

So what’s the big deal?

Organic farmers say organic produce is in large part defined by the soil – the very thing hydroponic fruits and vegetables lack.

“One essential part of [organic farming] is organic farmers fertilize by feeding the soil rather than by feeding the crop. We add organic matter in the form of compost or sometimes manure,” UC Davis Market Garden coordinator Raoul Adamchak said. Adamchak oversees the 16-acre farm on campus and teaches students how to farm organically.

“It very much involves the soil and involves the microbes in the soil,” Adamchak said.

But hydroponic farmers like Fred Chavez, of Rancho Cordova-based Rainsville Farms, say they should be able to get the organic label. Chavez uses organic seeds, he doesn’t use pesticides and he uses filtered water to feed his lettuce.

If anything, Chavez said his produce may be more “organic” than what’s grown in the soil.

“Even though it’s organic, it’s outside and being rained on, basically by pollution. Water is pollution, whereas here we use purified water,” Chavez said.

The issue is more complicated when considering the range of techniques traditional organic farmers use. Adamchak says he often starts seedlings in the greenhouse in a mixture of peat moss, compost and pearlite.

“Right there we’ve edged away from soil to what you would call an artificial medium that we’ve grown our plants in,” Adamchak said. The UC Davis farm also grows tomatoes in the greenhouse over the winter, which are then sold as organic – even though they’re not grown in soil, either.

While the NOSB crops subcommittee further considers the issue, both farmers say more highly detailed labeling might be a good solution.

“I think it would be better if it were labeled not just with the word organic, but with the word hydroponic organic. So it was clear that this was not grown in the soil,” Adamchak suggested.

Chavez offered a similar idea.

“It would be nice to have some sort of label to let people know we’re not using pesticides and we’re using organic seeds,” he said.