- With a pair of 7 to 8 votes, members of the National Organic Standards Board voted against banning hydroponic and aquaponic crops from organic certification, meaning both farming methods are still allowed, according to several accounts of the meeting and a U.S. Agriculture Department spokesman. The NOSB considered the issue at its semi-annual meeting this week in Jacksonville, Florida.
- Whether hydroponic crops could be eligible for organic certification has been before the USDA's organic advisory board for about two decades. Consensus on the issue has been hard to find, and planned votes have been deferred for years in order to get more feedback and try to come to a compromise.
- The board did vote to prohibit aeroponic growing — where plants are suspended in the air and their roots are given nutrients through misting — from being certified as organic with 14 yes votes and one abstention.
While the National Organic Standards Board had a full agenda for its meeting this week in Florida, the hydroponic proposal was the item that drew widespread interest. After all, the board — which votes on nonbinding recommendations that are then considered by the USDA — has struggled with this issue for years. Plans to vote on it last November and this April were scuttled because board members wanted to get more information on the issue. A public telephone discussion of the issue in August also showed little consensus.
The regulations dealing with whether hydroponic crops can be certified organic have been unclear. Last November, the Cornucopia Institute filed a formal legal complaint against USDA, claiming while the NOSB has barred hydroponics from bearing the organic seal, USDA has allowed more than 100 foreign and domestic growers to receive the certification.
Prior to this week's meeting, the only somewhat definitive action taken on the crops was in 2010. That year, the NOSB issued a recommendation that stated “Hydroponics...certainly cannot be classified as certified organic growing methods due to their exclusion of the soil-plant ecology intrinsic to organic farming systems and USDA/(National Organic Program) regulations governing them.”
Several interest groups feel strongly about the issue. Some organizations, such as the Cornucopia Institute, contend soil is necessary for organic crops, and legislative intent of the organic program did not include hydroponics.
In a petition to the NOSB, Cornucopia says allowing hydroponic cultivation "does not comply to the spirit and letter of the law," and derides container growth — a sort of middle ground that allows some liquid feeding and some amount of a substrate such as compost — as "a recipe for widespread cheating." At this week's meeting, board members also defeated a motion to restrict organic container production to 20% liquid feeding and 50% in the container by the same 7-8 margin.
"The current federal regulations require careful stewardship of the soil as a prerequisite for the granting of organic certification to farmers," the petition states.
"The mantra for pioneering organic farmers, and those who truly uphold the spirit of organics, is: feed the soil not the plant. Nutritionally superior food, and superior taste, requires careful stewardship of a diverse and healthy microbiome in the soil."
The Organic Trade Association has traditionally not supported hydroponics, though the group said the NOSB recently changed its definition of hydroponically grown crops: Anything in a container that receives more than 20% of its nitrogen through liquid and more than 50% of its nitrogen requirement added after the crop has been planted. According to position papers and a spokesperson, the Organic Trade Association did not support the motion to ban hydroponics because the definition had seen such a radical change.
Companies like Plenty, which promotes indoor vertical organic farming, lobbied against the hydroponic ban. In written testimony given to the board, Plenty representatives said demand for organic food and farming is continuing to increase. Plenty sees hydroponic crops as a way to adapt domestic organic growth to the future.
"We must take advantage of all available solutions to meet growing demand, while staying true to our identity as organic producers," Plenty's statement says. "We also must embrace U.S. innovation to maintain our leadership in the industry and foster the solutions that will ultimately feed the world. For example, Plenty’s organic growing system yields up to 350 times that of traditional systems and can be located close to consumers, regardless of climate, geography or economic status. 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."
Even though votes have been cast, this issue of hydroponics in organic agriculture has not truly been decided. The NOSB has no policymaking authority of its own, and will bring its recommendations to the USDA, which can make changes in organic program policy. However, it is likely that these votes will be reflected in what happens next. Most of them do not represent a change in the status quo, which means no new government regulations would need to be established. Since the Trump administration is so regulation-averse, these recommendations are relatively easy to implement.