Re-Nuble targets USDA over ‘organic’ certifications

Getting her hands dirty: Re-Nuble founder and CEO Tinia Pina is challenging federal "certified organic" guidelines.
By GREGORY ZELLER //

A “waste-to-value” biotech with Long Island roots is taking its food-for-all message to the people – and is taking on the U.S. Department of Agriculture over critical “organic” certifications.

Re-Nuble Inc., which operates out of facilities in Brooklyn and Long Island City but remains a “virtual tenant” of Stony Brook University’s Clean Energy Business Incubator Program, is presenting Wednesday at Food Tank Summit NYC, a celebration and exploration of food and food systems.

A self-billed “think tank for food,” Food Tank is a Washington-based 501(c)3 organization dedicated to building a global community of well-informed and well-nourished eaters. Its summits gather “the world’s most impactful food system leaders,” according to the organization, and that’s an audience Tinia Pina would very much like to address.

Pina, Re-Nuble’s founder and CEO, will serve as an industry panelist during a roundtable discussion on Financing Waste and Loss Prevention – a subject close to her heart and to the operational specs of a 2015 startup that sees bountiful gains in what Pina called “the U.S.’s abundant food-waste stream.”

Concerns over chemical fertilization, the poor nutritional choices available in Harlem – where she taught an SAT-prep class – and the massive waste of the nation’s “leftover” food put Pina on a scientifically entrepreneurial path. Her research led quickly to anaerobic digesters, biological processes that break down biodegradable materials with a number of beneficial side-effects.

Among them: harvestable energy and a residue goop that serves as a decent fertilizer and super-effective hydroponic-growth accelerant.

Hydroponics figures to factor heavily into Pina’s Food Tank presentation. A primary mission to convert leftover consumables into renewable, nutritious, potentially year-round crops – especially one focused on inner-city settings, where large swaths of farmable land can be hard to find – naturally migrates toward hydroponics, a subset of hydroculture that grows plants in water-based mineral-nutrient solutions, sans soil.

Pina’s push in that soilless direction comes at a critical moment for “organic” food in general and hydroponics in particular. According to the California-based Organic Produce Network, which supports the national organic-produce community through education and live events, fresh organic produce racked up $1.25 billion in sales through the second quarter of 2017, marking an 8 percent increase in sales and 10 percent increase in product volume over the first half of 2016.

Such numbers suggest a national consumer base that’s not only interested in eating healthily but in understanding better where its “organic” foodstuffs come from – good news for a startup biotech pedaling breakthrough organic fertilizers and growth accelerants.

Water sign: “Organic” certification for qualifying hydroponic operations is key, according to Pina.

But Re-Nuble’s waterborne growth science is also fighting against the tide, in a way. The National Organics Standards Board, a federal advisory panel operating under the auspices of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, is considering a permanent rule that would prevent modern farming techniques like hydroponics from being certified “organic.”

With some exceptions – notably, 17 USDA-certified organic hydroponic operations around the nation – the NOSB has already ruled that growth operations that eschew “potting mixtures devoid of or deficient in organic matter capable of supporting a natural and diverse soil ecology” cannot be certified.

Pina is tackling such thinking head-on, both in her Food Tank presentation and in an in-depth white paper Re-Nuble plans to release this week, focused on the technical aspects of soilless farming and why certifying such practices as “organic” would create what the entrepreneur calls “a more holistic and inclusive agriculture industry.”

“If organic labeling was focused more on transparency of the entire supply chain of agricultural inputs and the practices used to grow a crop, and the true difference between ‘natural,’ ‘organic certified’ and ‘post organic’ produce, then there would be less debate,” Pina told Innovate LI. “Sadly, it’s not.

“Instead, the driving force behind this decision is more related to perceived fears of a threat of market share – when really, this increased organic certification should allow for existing soil-based farms to grow more and year-round.”

Pina understands the science behind the NOSB’s thinking – specifically, that composting properties necessary to organic production can only be found in soil – but she disagrees.

Re-Nuble has proven that those critical composting components can be replicated in a soilless environment, according to the scientist, and a shortsighted decision to prohibit “organic” labeling for hydroponic crops represents an unhealthy backward step when the federal government should be exploring new methods for producing renewable, nutritious food sources.

With farming operations of all sizes incorporating indoor operations for the sake of year-round production, preventing them from achieving the “organic” certification that consumers increasingly demand will only sow discord and marketplace confusion, Pina noted.

“Throughout my life, I’ve been a proponent for eating real, whole food that provides true nourishment, produced ideally within a closed-loop environment,” she said. “Re-Nuble is rapidly growing to prove that case with a unique product offering – and a mission to reinvest into additional research needed to prove that a majority of a plant’s nourishment can be derived from food waste alone.”