Demand for organic produce soars and so does debate over how you define it.

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.

Traditional organic farmers “feel like this is a complete slap in the face,” said Andrianna Natsoulas, executive director of Northeast Organic Farming Association of New York. “They feel that organic now is a complete joke and it means absolutely nothing, and their years of working and their dedication and their commitment is for naught.”

Jim Gerritsen, who is president of Organic Seed Growers and Trade Association, said the problem lies with the USDA and a “disrespect that serves the corporate interests.”

“The integrity of organic” is at a crossroads, said Page-Mann, who produces certified organic, regionally adapted seed.

This summer Amazon bought Whole Foods for $13.7 billion. Many organic food companies have already sold out to multinational corporations such as General Mills, Post, Smuckers and Coca Cola, to name a few.

Denis Lepel is co-owner of Lakestone Family Farm in Farmington.

“To me, the whole point of organic is to sustainably farm through practices that make the soil better and more healthy — to support the viability and production of a crop,” Lepel said.

“The soil is fundamental … for sustainability, environmental impact” and for the health of farmers and farm workers, Lepel added.

On the other side of the fence are groups such as the Recirculating Farms Coalition, which represents hydroponic and aquaponic farmers. The coalition promotes development of eco-efficient farms that use clean recycled water as the basis to grow food.

“We believe these recirculating farms can create stable green jobs and supply sustainably grown food — fruits, vegetables, herbs and humanely raised seafood — in diverse communities nationwide, and someday, worldwide,” the coalition said.

At Cornell University, a growing method called Controlled Environment Agriculture (CEA) is being researched and developed and aims to help feed the boom in global population, which is expected to top 9 billion by 2050. Leafy greens, tomatoes, basil, and other produce are being grown indoors under conditions that can be monitored and optimized.

Controlled Environment Agriculture enables year-round production of fresh vegetables through greenhouse environmental control — heating and lighting, for example — combined with hydroponic and soilless production.

Marianne Cufone, executive director of Recirculating Farms Coalition, said the law left room for the meaning of organic to expand. She said she was shocked that so many people are opposed to hydroponic and aquaporin farming being labeled as such.

“I thought it was an absolute no-brainer that hydroponics and aquaporin, when done well, can meet organic standards and why wouldn’t anyone want that included?” Cufone said. “They’re excellent on water reduction. They’re excellent on space use. They’re excellent on intensive production, so we’re using less resources and creating more food. That just seems smart.”

Includes reporting by The Associated Press.