Organic status of hydroponics back on the docket at NOSB semi-annual meeting this week

By Elizabeth Crawford contact

- Last updated on GMT

Organic status of hydroponics back on the docket at NOSB
Organic stakeholders gathering in Denver this week for the National Organic Standards Board meeting will take another stab at defining the role of hydroponic production in organic, which documents suggest the advisory committee may prohibit. 

While controversy is often the name of the game at the semi-annual NOSB meetings, the question of whether to allow hydroponically grown produce to qualify as organic could be one of the most contentious topics tackled by the board, which advises USDA on oversight of organic certification.

“No recent issue has represented the divide in organics more aptly than whether or not hydroponic growing, in greenhouses or containers, should be legalized”​ under the organic standard, according to The Cornucopia Institute, which opposes certifying the techniques.

In a statement released ahead of the meeting, the nonprofit organization explained what is at stake: the ongoing integrity of organic standards that require farmers to manage and improve soil fertility or the financial future of more than 100 hydroponic facilities already certified as organic that could lose their status if the NOSB recommends USDA prohibit the practice under the organic seal.

Unfortunately for those hydroponic facilities, materials prepared for the meeting by an NOSB subcommittee suggest that their organic certification may be revoked. 

Subcommittee recommends prohibiting hydroponics from organic

In a discussion document prepared for the meeting, the NOSB Crops Subcommittee, which was tasked with refining the definition for hydroponics and related aeroponics and aquaponics at the fall board meeting, defines hydroponics as the production of “normally terrestrial, vascular plants in nutrient-rich solutions, or in a medium of inert or biological recalcitrant solid materials to which a nutrient solution is added.”

After weighing the arguments for and against allowing hydroponics to be certified as organic, many of which were discussed at the fall meeting​, the committee recommended that the technique be added to the list of prohibited substances, methods and ingredients in organic production and handling. 

It made the same recommendation for aquaponics, which it recommends be defined as “a recirculating hydroponic system in which plants are grown in nutrients originating from aquatic animal waste water, which may include the use of bacteria to improve availability of these nutrients to the plants. The plants improve the water quality by using the nutrients, and the water is then recirculated back to the aquatic animals,” ​and aeroponics, which it defines as “a variation of hydroponics in which plant roots are suspended in air and misted with nutrient solution.”

OTA says definition needs tweaking

The Organic Trade Association lauds the subcommittee’s effort to define each technique and recognizes the extensive effort it invested in the discussion document as well as materials it submitted and reviewed during previous meetings, but it says the definitions are not quite right, yet.

“We believe the proposed definition for hydroponics is too broad and vague, and we question whether adding these terms [to the regulation] is the best way to accomplish the goal to ensure all organic products are grown in alignment with organic principles,”​ it writes in comments submitted to NOSB before the meeting.

Specifically, it recommends adding “sterile”​ as an adjective for the nutrient-rich solutions in which the plants are grown and removing the description “biologically recalcitrant”​ because it is vague and could be misinterpreted as applying to operations that grow crops in containers with mixtures of soil, compost, peat and coco coir. OTA also suggests adding the term “sterile”​ to describe the solutions to deliver crop nutrients.

In addition to changing the definitions, OTA recommends the subcommittee prohibit organic certification from these techniques through a different avenue than suggested. The proposal to add the trio to the list of prohibited substances for organic production and handling raises too many questions, it explains.

“Will certifiers now need to verify any non-organic agricultural ingredient included in the 5% of an ‘organic’ product or the 30% of a ‘made with organic’ product be produced without the use of aeroponics, hydroponics and aquaponics?” ​it asks, adding, “Does this prohibition apply to non-organic seed and planting stock used on organic farms when organic farms are not commercially available?”

The committee likely will discuss these questions at the meeting, along with several it posed about the farming techniques in its preview materials. The stated intention is that following the discussion at this meeting, the subcommittee and NOSB will be prepared to vote on a specific recommendation to give USDA in the fall.                

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