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.
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.
“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.
Driscoll’s says that it does not grow hydroponic crops. “Containerized production is not the same production system as hydroponics, which is a water-based production system,” the company states on its website. “Driscoll’s organic supply comes from both certified in-ground production and certified containerized production.” Wholesum Harvest also uses containerized greenhouse growing methods but additionally grows in open fields in Arizona and Mexico.
A ‘Settled Issue’
Earlier this year, USDA clarified that it considers the organic hydroponics matter to be a “settled issue.”
“Last year we issued an Organic Insider [an email newsletter] that indicated that hydroponics had been allowed since the beginning of the program and that [they] are still allowed,” Jennifer Tucker, NOP deputy administrator, told The Packer’s 2019 Global Organic Produce Expo on Feb. 1, 2019. “We consider that a settled issue.”
Explaining why some certifiers certify hydroponic operations and others do not, Tucker noted that some certifiers don’t have the administrative capacity or technical expertise in hydroponic systems. “There are some certifiers that certify hydroponics, and there are some that do not; they are all bound by a common set of regulations,” she said.
The controversy has not been limited to the U.S. Organic certification of hydroponics is not permitted in Canada, Mexico, or the European Union. In April 2018, the European Parliament voted to end the importation of hydroponically grown organic produce into the EU as well as the organic certification of hydroponically grown products within the EU. Similarly, Canada and Mexico do not allow organic certification of hydroponics and bar the import of organically certified hydroponically grown foods.
These actions “show the organic industry is not injured by banning organic certification of hydroponically grown products,” the CFS complaint states. “Organic standards for Americans should not be lesser than, and must be equivalent to, those of other countries’ organic standards. USDA should also take immediate action to follow these countries and ban organic certification of hydroponics.”
Given the Trump Administration’s expressed aversion to additional federal regulation and USDA’s longstanding hands-off approach to the issue, many observers consider it highly unlikely that hydroponically grown crops will be decertified from the organic label anytime soon.