NOSB defers vote on organic certification for hydroponics amid confusion about ‘basically everything’

By Elizabeth Crawford contact

- Last updated on GMT

Source: iStock
Source: iStock
Hydroponic and aquaponic farms can keep their organic status – at least for now – following the National Organic Standards Board’s decision April 21 to defer a vote on whether the systems are eligible for USDA certification.

“There was a lot of admitted confusion by the board”​ about hydroponic and aquaponics, as well as “vastly differing sets of opinions on this from the public, from the board, from farmers – and so it seemed like [NOSB] wants to take more time to consider the issue, try to get the definitions [of hydroponic and aquaponic] clearer and have a better understanding of how hydroponics and aquaponics work,”​ Marianne Cufone, executive director of the Recirculating Farms Coalition, told FoodNavigator-USA.

She explained that the “crux of the argument”​ about whether hydro- and aquaponics can qualify as USDA certified organic is whether organic regulations require soil.

“A strict reading of the law doesn’t. There is nowhere in the Act or in any of the regulations that specifically says organic requires soil. It is just not there,”​ she said.

She acknowledged that there is language that says farms need to either not harm soil or build soil, but she says that aqua- and hydroponics do that in part because some systems contain earth.

“For example, you could have an aquaponics system that uses lava rocks as the growing medium and then uses liquid compost in the system and that arguably is soil. It has all the components of soil and it uses the same inputs as a dirt-based farm. The only difference is the plant-roots are being held up by rocks,”​ she said.

She added that “part of the confusion is that there are so many different designs and styles of hydro- and aquaponics and we don’t have any definition of what could or should be organic, other than the inputs that are used.”

To be fair, NOSB was slated to vote on recommended definitions​ for hydro and aquaponics, but major players in the industry agreed that the recommendations were still too vague. 

In addition to requesting more details on how hydroponics and aquaponics work, NOSB also requested before the next meeting in the fall more information quantifying the inputs used by the systems and about the microbiology in the systems, Cufone said.

While she expressed some discouragement about the board members’ lack of familiarity with the detailed report prepared for them about hydro- and aquaponics ahead of the meeting, but Cufone said she recognized that there was a lot of science involved and many tangled issues. She also said she was encouraged that some members of the board were visiting an aquaponics farm in Denver where the meeting was held after it adjourned.

What to expect in the fall

Even with an additional six months to learn about and visit hydo- and aquaponics farms, Cufone doubts the board will be ready to make a recommendation on whether the farms qualify for organic certification in the fall.

Rather, she hopes they will continue their discussion and ideally wait a year or more before voting on a recommendation so that “they have good information and feel comfortable talking about these farms, just like they do in-ground farms.”

High stakes

She stressed a deep understanding is vital because the stakes are so high or hydro- and aquaponic farms that already are certified as organic.

“For the farms that have invested the time and money to be certified USDA organic, this can be a huge blow to them because they are not just community-based. They are expanding to be a bigger part of US ag and filling more mainstream stores and growing in commercial capacity,”​ she said.

She also worries that a vote to strip these farms of their certification could shake consumers’ faith in the organic seal overall and that many might feel “duped”​ for paying more for organic only to find out later that it wasn’t.

Finally, she said vetoing the certification of these types of farms would discourage new farmers who USDA wants to attract to agriculture by sending them a message that the agency does not value innovation or sustainability.

“I think it would be really closed-minded if we were closing a future opportunity because we have more people to feed and less space to do it and a lot of people in urban areas, which is where these farms are especially good,”​ she said.  

She added: “Hydroponics and aquaponics are sustainable systems and they are important for the future of ag because they resuse waste and water, they can use less energy, the can run on alternative energy, they are space efficient, they are versatile and today, organics should be about more than soil. It should be about the whole picture. We should be looking to improve our planet and these types of farms at their very core are eco-efficient.”

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3 comments

Valid points for both implies a compromise solution

Posted by Ed Weinberg,

Why not 2 certifications - Organic-S and Organic-H? A win-win for the each type of grower and the consumer. Consumers who desire organic foods could then choose based on taste, look and price -- the way it should be.

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Redefine organic

Posted by Pamela,

It's clear that semantics is separating the issue. If the right nutrients are used and if nothing is added (or needed) like pesticides or herbicides....which harm both the soil AND water used in hydro or aquaponics AS WELL AS the environment.....that should be the definition of organic. There are tons of micro organisms in hydroponic and aquaponic systems so by rights it is organic and it does not require the use of topsoil and depleting the earth of its nutrients, thus saving the soil for those plants that can't be grown hydroponically. As a matter of fact, since minimal washing is required and aqua and hydroponic systems reuse water, those systems are just as healthy for the environment t. True they require electricity, but not irrigation of plant free areas. I'm for it....as a scientist and microbiologist. Be open to innovation and not stagnation

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OFPA clearly requires soil for organic certification

Posted by Sam Welsch,

The USDA definition of Soil: "The outermost layer of the earth comprised of minerals, water, air, organic matter, fungi, and bacteria in which plants may grow roots."

The Organic Foods Production Act clearly requires soil:

§6513. Organic plan
(b) Crop production farm plan
(1) Soil fertility
An organic plan shall contain provisions designed to foster soil fertility, primarily through the management of the organic content of the soil through proper tillage, crop rotation, and manuring.

The NOP asked the Hydroponics Task Force to answer the question, “How could hydroponic or aquaponic systems align with this requirement?”

The simple answer is: “They can’t.”

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