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Upcoming vote on organic certification of hydroponics stokes emotions, has far-reaching impact

By Elizabeth Crawford

03-Nov-2016
Last updated on 03-Nov-2016 at 16:51 GMT2016-11-03T16:51:41Z

Souce: iStock
Souce: iStock

Mere weeks before the National Organic Standards Board is expected to vote on a recommendation to allow hydroponically grown food to qualify as organic, the Cornucopia Institute filed a formal legal complaint with USDA outlining why they should not be certified organic.

The complaint filed Nov. 1 asks the National Organic Program Compliance and Enforcement Branch of USDA to investigate the organic certification of Wholesum Harvest Family Farms and Driscoll’s, which the watchdog says are only two of more than 100 hydroponic and container growers that are certified organic despite apparent “conflict with the statutory language of the Organic Foods Production Act.” 

Citing a provision in the act that calls for organic plans to “foster soil fertility,” Cornucopia argues that crop production practices that do not include “this fundamental precept” should not be allowed to be certified organic by USDA.

The complaint goes on to say that Driscoll’s and Wholesum Harvest “appear to fail to meet the crop production requirements” related to soil management because they do not use soil.

Cornucopia says Driscoll’s raspberry and blueberry container systems use peat moss, “which actually robs organic matter from the soil,” and Wholesum Harvest uses coconut coir for container substrate, which is “also lacking nutrients.”

Driscoll’s differentiates container crops from ‘bioponics’

Driscoll’s counters in a statement that it does not grow hydroponic, aquaponic or aeroponic crops, collectively called bioponics, but rather in-ground and container crops.

“Containerized production is not the same production as hydroponics, which is a water-based production system,” it notes, adding, “Container production exemplifies the organic spirit extremely well, and existing organic rules require inputs be free of synthetic chemicals or genetically modified organisms.”

Furthermore, Driscoll’s notes, “The NOSB confirmed that greenhouse production in soil and containers can align with organic principles in its recommendations in 2010 and reaffirmed this position in its discussion document in 2016.”

Regulatory shortcomings under review

The 2010 recommendations from NOSB also recommended that non-soil growing operations not be certified as organic. However, the NOP has yet to act on those recommendations and issue a proposed rule on specific standards for organic hydroponic operations. As such, its most recent publicly made statement that hydroponics may be certified because NOP regulations do not expressly prohibit them stands – serving as the basis for USDA’s decision to certify as organic the more than 100 hydroponic operations cited by Cornucopia in its complaint. 

The lack of clear guidance has created consternation on both sides of the issue, prompting USDA in 2015 to establish US National Organic Programs Hydroponic and Aquaponic Task Force to help guide NOSB in its advice to NOP regarding a clear-cut rule for hydroponic certification.

Unfortunately, the report released by the task force this summer did not provide a clear answer. It recognized the role of soil in organic certification but also suggested there were ways to satisfy players on both sides of the argument. 

Potentially more confusing still, is the committee’s decision to bring forward the recommendation to allow certification of bioponic grown plants even though the recommendation failed to pass the very committee putting it forward.

Nonetheless, NOSB later this month is scheduled to vote on the proposal to allow certification of bioponic grown crops.

OTA asks for a delay of game

In comments filed Oct. 24 to the NOSB ahead of the vote at the semi-annual meeting, the Organic Trade Association described the report as “splintered” so that it is unclear whether the report “will assist or distract NOSB from providing recommendations to NOP to clarify the 2010 recommendation.”

The trade group outlines the proposal’s shortcomings that it says NOSB should address before making a recommendation. These include clearly defining hydroponics, aeroponics and aquaponics separately and then addressing whether each one should be allowed to be certified organic individually. Plus, it notes that the definitions in the report are different than those in the 2010 recommendation, which could make how best to define the terms unclear to NOP.

“We also think it is problematic to include aquaponics in the discussion at this juncture because we are awaiting a production standard for aqua culture so we feel like that NOSB should at least have their proposal informed by the proposed standard on aqua culture before it determines whether or not the crop grown in an aquaponics system can comply with organic standards or not,” said Nate Lewis, farm policy director for OTA.

Another aspect of the report with which OTA takes issue is the notion that using fertilizers disqualify an operation for organic certification, Lewis told FoodNavigator-USA. He explained, “Even if the fertilizer is in a liquid form you still need biology in the soil or the container or the in hydroponic growing solution that converts those complicated nitrogen molecules into something that is plant available. … So, the notion that liquid fertilizers equal conventional farming is just not accurate.”

Given these points, OTA suggests that NOSB should not vote on the recommendation, but rather send the issue back to the committee for further consideration.

It explains in its comments “the issue has divided organic stakeholders, which underscores the need for NOSB to proceed thoughtfully and transparently. … Moving forward hastily with an underdeveloped proposal to allow ‘bioponics’ does not seem prudent at this juncture, and this proposal should be referred back to the subcommittee for further refinement.”

What would a ‘no’ vote mean?

If the committee moves forward with a vote, and it is rejected as it was in the subcommittee, Lewis said he wonders what will happen to the existing businesses that are certified as organic, and asks if the definitions of bioponics would then revert back to those in the 2010 proposal.

If that happens, he says, the definitions likely would be out of date as significant advancements have been made in bioponic farming since 2010 and there are clear distinctions between conventional and organic bioponics.

“It certainly is appropriate for the board to take a look at this again and deliberate cautiously, because there are a lot of businesses currently engaged in hydroponic organic production and it is an option for urban production,” he said. “So, if NOSB is going to shut the door, they need to think about it very deliberately and not take that decision lightly.”

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