Standing Firm on Soil

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."

9 Responses to “Standing Firm on Soil”

  1. Greg Harrison, DVM

    Plastics used in hydroponics are used by coliform bacteria as fertilizer. Found this out using a garden hose to water parrots.
    Kept getting infections until went to copper and stainless steel.

    Available to discuss further.

  2. Doug Seibert

    I believe as a long time certified organic grower, that we should come together and demand that big ag should not control are standards. We need to correct the problems and stick with soil based organic standards. The idea of making a higher tiered standard is not the right approach, make it right at its core.

  3. Dennis Dierks

    I feel like CCOF organic certification has been bought out.
    I was greatly disturbed by CCOF
    certifying hydroponics. I have been certified organic
    since 1976 and now am looking for another organization
    to certify our farm.

    Dennis Dierks

  4. Ken Barber

    NOSB should not allow any of its members with financial ties to aquaponics companies to serve on the NOSB. This is a direct conflict of interest and should be looked into right now. I believe this is happening right now.
    If there is No SOIL it is not a valid Organic Production system. I am a certified organic farmer and I say NO to aquaponic certification. No substitutes for real soil and real organic food production. Thank you Rodale for all your efforts.

  5. robert wheeler

    i just surrender my usda certification,in protest,i could not compete with hydroponic,i spend time and money feeding the soil,with using the benefits of biodiversity(lots of wild and native plants and insects and birds)to grow the the very best produce.i am not going to give my hard earn money to any certification, that cuts my throat and degrades the the thrue meaning of organics!

  6. Darlene Falzarano

    I am in agreement with the OFA and find this ruling on hydroponics confusing at best and not clearly related to organic soil growing practices. I am not against researching hydroponics nor using this method in climatic extremes where people have no soil. It probably has some transitional value until one develops soil. but there’s the added problem of generating even more plastics. It looks bad, really. So my vote is keep it in the lab, learn more about what soil gives us and mother earth. The future of agriculture doesn’t have to be futuristic. It just has to be real.

  7. Ruth Heil

    As a consumer, I favor the Organic Farmers Association position. Organic is the fruit of soil. I’ve long heard organic-favoring farmers describe the years-long battle to get their conventional soil up to organic standards. By labeling soil-less food as organic, it puts into question the label as a whole. It seems to me that the best solution is to create a new certification for hydroponic crops. Hydroganic? Yes, let there be a label to set apart the more nutritious and healthier hydroponics from the sterile and cheap, but don’t allow hydroponic farmers to market it as something it is not.

  8. sharne algotsson

    I agree, there should be a new certification for hydroponic crops. The customer should know the differentiation. Soil based or water based. That is the whole point of eating organic, to give the consumer the option a of healthy choice.

  9. Kent

    There should be rewards for water conservation and misrepresention. The Rodale Organic Bible said “Chemical Fertilzers repel Earthworms’. But, that is an falsehood and all plants eat “INORGANIC’ no matter what source they are from. Orgainic has issues with amounts and science. I love organic concept, but, lots of holes.


Leave a Reply