Organic farmers dispute the decision to allow hydroponically grown produce to be certified.
This article originally ran in the spring 2018 issue of New Farm Magazine, the magazine of Organic Farmers Association. All OFA members receive a complimentary issue of New Farm annually. Click here to sign up!
Is soil necessary for certified-organic crops? “No” was the answer for eight of the 15 National Organic Standards Board members who voted at the November 2017 meeting. By a one-vote margin, the board rejected a proposal to prohibit hydroponic and aquaponic farms from earning the USDA’s official organic seal. The USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) backed the outcome of the vote in a January 2018 announcement: “Certification of hydroponic, aquaponic, and aeroponic operations is allowed under the USDA organic regulations and has been since the National Organic Program began.”
To date, about 100 of these types of operations have been approved for the label by accredited third-party inspectors, such as California Certified Organic Farmers and Oregon Tilth. Most certifiers, however, have never approved hydroponic producers. Hydroponic growers stress that just like other organic farmers, they use only approved inputs, such as fertilizers and pest controls. Additionally, they assert that their process tends to consume less water and land than farming in the ground does. Indoor growing, they argue, makes it possible to meet year-round consumer demand for all kinds of organic fruits and vegetables.
The leading advocates for accepting hydroponic crops as organic include representatives of Driscoll’s, one of the top berry suppliers in the U.S., and Wholesum Harvest, which produces tomatoes and other fresh vegetables. Producers like these raise acres of crops in containers and feed plants with liquid nutrients. The plants have no contact with the ground and in many cases are sheltered inside greenhouses or other buildings.
In a January 2018 survey of farmer-members of Organic Farmers Association, the majority of respondents voted to challenge the legality of soilless growing. “The AMS notice contained no Organic Foods Production Act [OFPA] or National Organic Program [NOP] rule citations to justify the novel position being taken by the USDA,” says Jim Riddle, chairman of the Organic Farmers Association Steering Committee. “Further, the notice contained no guidance to certifying agencies on how to certify operations that do not comply with most NOP requirements.”
Organic Farmers Association sent a letter to Sonny Perdue, U.S. secretary of agriculture, requesting an explanation of the legal basis, in both the OFPA and the NOP final rule, for allowing hydroponic systems and products to be certified, labeled, and sold as organic.
The letter states that “while the word ‘soil’ is mentioned in the Organic Foods Production Act seven times and in the NOP final rule 50 times, the words ‘hydroponic,’ ‘aquaponic,’ ‘aeroponic’ [and] ‘soilless’ are not mentioned at all...Soilless hydroponic production systems do not foster soil fertility or build soil organic matter content, as required by OFPA.”
“The best possible outcome would be for Secretary Perdue to order the USDA to retract its statement,” Riddle says. “Otherwise, I see continued fragmentation of the organic sector, with soil-based operations needing to establish certification systems and labels to differentiate their products from USDA Organic products.
“Organic [farming] is an ecological production system,” Riddle concludes, “not a system of input substitution.”
With the support of its farmer-members, Organic Farmers Association opposes certifying hydroponic crops as organic. The organization supports the NOSB Crops Subcommittee’s 2017 recommendation to the NOSB, which states, “For container production to be certified organic, a limit of 20% of the plants’ nitrogen requirement can be supplied by liquid feeding, a limit of 50% of the plants’ nitrogen requirement can be added to the container after the crop has been planted, and the container substrate must be at least 50% soil and/or compost by volume."