Listening to the National Organic Standards Board’s discussion Monday afternoon on hydroponic crops, one thing was clear: There is no consensus on whether crops grown without soil should be able to be certified organic.
“Clearly, this is not an easy subject to resolve,” said Tom Chapman, the board's chairman. “It’s been on the board’s agenda since 1995.”
The panel, which advises the U.S. Department of Agriculture on issues dealing with certified organic food and ingredients, has passed the hydroponic issue from meeting agenda to meeting agenda for years. The board has discussed and failed to act on proposals several times. An April vote on the issue was deferred, with members saying they needed more time, research and input from stakeholders in the organic community.
Monday’s meeting was a web conference call for members of the public to listen to board members discuss where they stood on potential proposals on hydroponics, aquaponics and container-grown produce. No votes were taken and no finalized proposals were discussed. The next time the board may take action on the issue is at its fall meeting from Oct. 31 to Nov. 2.
The regulations dealing with whether hydroponic crops can be certified organic are 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.
In 2010, 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.”
A motion to allow hydroponic crops to be considered organic was on the table for the fall NOSB meeting in 2016, but not voted on because it was unlikely to pass. Instead, members passed a resolution that stated a consensus of members wanted to prohibit hydroponic systems from being used that were entirely water-based.
On Monday, Chapman said he’d be likely to support the 2010 recommendation — but the problem is that it doesn’t truly address what’s prohibited. Are there substances that can be used for growing more hydroponic-based crops? And if so, what would be allowed?
“Clearly, this is not an easy subject to resolve. It’s been on the board’s agenda since 1995.”
Chairman, National Organic Standards Board
“We know this is a controversial topic, so I’ve tried to find things that are on common ground for the whole NOSB and work our way up from it,” said member Steve Ela.
There wasn’t much common ground, however. Some members of the board said they would support certifying hydroponic systems.
When discussion moved to aquaponic systems — where fish live in the tanks of the liquid used to grow crops — members were divided. Some said they should be prohibited because of the untreated waste from the fish going straight into the crops, which would not be permitted for organic crops growing in soil. But others said there has not been much study on any negative impacts, so not enough is known to take a stance on this issue.
Heated discussion also took place on how much soil or water would be needed in container-grown crops. A potential "compromise" proposal from the NOSB’s Crops Committee set limits to what would be needed for an organic crop – only 20% could be supplied by liquid feeding, no more than 50% of nutrients could be added after the crop was planted, and at least 50% of the container would have to be from a substrate such as compost. Supporters said this was based on similar limits set in the EU, which has also struggled with the issue.
Members had mixed opinions. Some felt one of the main benefits of organic farming was using the crops to improve soil over time — something that this sort of farming would not do. Others said setting hard limits of amounts that can be used in a container and not allowing more flexibility could be detrimental. Another group on the panel said the fact that some growers using these methods are already certified as organic would cause economic harm.
“There doesn’t seem to be a middle ground that’s acceptable,” Chapman said.
Members of the Crops Committee pledged to revisit their proposals before the fall meeting, but there are no guarantees that the issue will be included on the agenda — or would be voted on even if it’s there. After the board did not vote on anything dealing with hydroponics at its April meeting, many said they thought it would be unlikely to see any action on the issue at all this year.