The long-running controversy over whether hydroponically grown crops can be certified organic has taken a new turn, with the Center for Food Safety (CFS), a prominent nonprofit public interest group, filing a legal action demanding USDA ban hydroponic production systems from being allowed to use the USDA-certified organic label.
In a rulemaking petition filed in January, Oregon-based CFS requests USDA to issue new regulations prohibiting organic certification of hydroponic agricultural production. CFS also wants USDA to ensure that “ecologically integrated organic production practices” (that is, practices involving soil) are required for organic certification, and to revoke all organic certifications previously issued to hydroponic growers.
“Hydroponic systems cannot comply with the organic standard’s vital soil standards because hydroponic crops do not use soil at all,” stated the 23-page petition, which was endorsed by 13 organic farmer, consumer, retailer, and certifying organizations, including the Cornucopia Institute, Food & Water Watch, the Northwest Organic Dairy Producers Alliance, and the Organic Farmers Association.
“Mislabeling mega-hydroponic operations as ‘organic’ is contrary to the text and basic principles of the organic standard,” said George Kimbrell, CFS’s legal director, in a statement. “Right now, there is a pitched battle for the future of organic, and we stand with organic farmers and consumers who believe the label must retain its integrity.”
Battle Over Principles—and Pocketbooks
The battle, in part, is to uphold the soil improvement and biodiversity conservation principles embedded in the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990, which has been administered since 2000 by the National Organic Program (NOP) under USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service. Use of the term “organic” on food labels is limited to organic farmers and producers that have been certified by USDA-approved state, nonprofit, or private certifying agencies.
“Corporate agribusiness lobbyists have been working to water down the organic standards for decades,” said Mark Kastel, executive director for the Cornucopia Institute, a Wisconsin-based food and farm policy watchdog group, in a statement. “In this case, the careful stewardship of soil fertility is not only a philosophical precept, it’s codified in federal law.”
While “soil fertility” and “soil management” are prominent components of the organic statute and regulations, USDA has never issued specific rules regarding organic certification of hydroponics. Rather, USDA holds that organic hydroponic production is permitted “as long as the producer can demonstrate compliance with the USDA organic regulations.” Specifically, this means using “the same fertilizers and pest control practices as other organic farmers.”
In general, hydroponics refers to a variety of systems in which terrestrial plants are grown without soil, with their roots housed in a liquid solution or solid substrate, such as peat moss, gravel, bark, sawdust, or coconut coir. Hydroponic growers have traditionally used dissolved synthetic salts and minerals as nutrients. But those solutions can also be made using natural salts and organic residuals.
Hydroponics variations include aeroponics, in which plant roots are suspended in air and sprayed with a fine mist of atomized nutrients; aquaponics, in which fish or other aquatic animals are inserted into the hydroponic system to create a blended, symbiotic environment; and bioponics, in which microbes, bacteria, and fungi commonly found in fertile farm soil are combined with organic nutrients. Bioponics is increasingly being used in “vertical” farm systems, many of which are small producers in urban areas while others are large-scale indoor commercial operations.
Over the years, some USDA-accredited certifiers (including CCOF, QAI, and Oregon Tilth) have certified hydroponic producers. Currently 41 hydroponic crop operations are certified organic, of which at least 25 are entirely water-based, according to the CFS petition. Many other certifiers do not certify hydroponics, thereby creating an “inconsistent standard” that confuses consumers and puts soil-based organic growers at an economic disadvantage, CFS maintains.