Indeed, a lot of money is at stake. Organic food sales in the U.S. totaled $49.4 billion in 2017, up 6.4 percent from the previous year, according to the Organic Trade Association’s (OTA) latest survey. “Consumers trust the organic label and pay extra for the assurance that it indicates a more healthful and environmentally-friendly way of producing the food they buy,” according to the CFS petition.
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“Allowing hydroponic systems to be certified as organic undercuts the livelihood of organic farmers that take great lengths to support healthy soil as the bedrock of their farms,” states Kate Mendenhall of the Pennsylvania-based Organic Farmers Association, which is supported by the Rodale Institute.
Economically, hydroponics is no slouch, either. In 2017, the worldwide hydroponic crop farming market accounted for $5.2 billion, according to a recent analysis by KD Market Insights. By the end of 2023, this is expected to reach nearly $14 billion. This fast growth is fueled, in part, by hydroponics’ higher yields as compared to traditional farming methods.
For example, Matt Barnard, CEO of Plenty Unlimited, a San Francisco-based clean food farming startup, claims his hydroponic system “yields up to 350 times that of traditional systems and can be located close to consumers, regardless of climate, geography, or economic status.”
In a 2017 statement to the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB), the federal panel that advises USDA on issues related to organics, Barnard wrote “We’re able to deploy an organic field-scale farm within months, which means we’re able to scale U.S. organic production capacity fast enough to meet growing demand.”
“We must take advantage of all available solutions to meet growing demand, while staying true to our identity as organic producers,” Barnard stated. “We also must embrace U.S. innovation to maintain our leadership in the industry and foster the solutions that will ultimately feed the world.”
Amazon Inc. founder Jeff Bezos and Japanese tech giant SoftBank Corp. are among Plenty’s financial backers. Barnard told Reuters last year that China could potentially host at least 300 of Plenty’s farms.
The company is hiring in China and scouting for locations and distributors in Beijing, Shanghai, and Shenzhen. Plenty has also hired a team in Japan and has “locked down” a few farm sites there, Barnard said.
CFS’s petition is the latest in a multi-decade-long controversy over organic hydroponics. In 2010, NOSB issued a non-binding recommendation to USDA that hydroponics cannot be classified as a certified organic farming method “due to their exclusion of the soil-plant ecology intrinsic to organic farming systems and USDA (National Organic Program) regulations governing them.” USDA did not act on the recommendation.
In 2017, NOSB reversed this position by narrowly voting down two proposals that would have banned hydroponic and aquaponic crops from organic certification. The board did, however, agree by a wide margin to prohibit aeroponic production from receiving the organic certification. But again, USDA did not act on the recommendation.
OTA, the U.S. organic industry’s main trade group, generally opposes the certification of hydroponics, but notes that USDA may provide additional guidance in the future. “In the meantime, hydroponic operations certified under the NOP must comply with the organic crop regulations as they are written,” OTA says.
In addition to the CFS petition, the Cornicopia Institute in 2016 filed a formal complaint with USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service requesting an investigation into the organic certification of hydroponic operations in the U.S. that “appear to conflict with the statutory language of the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990 and current federal regulations governing organic food production.”
The complaint specifically targets Driscoll’s and Wholesum Harvest Family Farms, two large commercial growers of organic greenhouse tomatoes, cucumbers, squash, peppers, berries, and other produce. The complaint alleges that the organic certifiers for these operations “could have been deceived, could have acted incompetently, or could have been a co-conspirator in the alleged violations.” It is unclear whether USDA ever undertook an investigation.