The Center for Food Safety filed a petition with the Department of Agriculture Jan. 16 urging the agency to exclude hydroponically grown produce from eligibility for the USDA Organic label. The group wants the USDA to make sure "ecologically integrated organic production practices" are required for organic certification and revoke existing organic certifications previously issued to hydroponic operations.
The petition, endorsed by 13 consumer groups, organic growers and an organic retailer, stated growing food without soil doesn't meet federal organic standards and violates federal law requiring soil improvement and biodiversity conservation. "Hydroponic systems cannot comply with the organic standard's vital soil standards because hydroponic crops do not use soil at all," the petition said.
After years of debate, the National Organic Standards Board recommended in 2010 that hydroponic not be considered a certified organic growing method since it excludes soil-plant ecology inherent in organic farming systems. However, board members narrowly voted in November 2017 not to exclude hydroponic crops from organic certification.
This controversy has been simmering for a long while. Soil-only advocates emphasize the NOSB — which advises the USDA on matters related to organics — made this 2010 recommendation: "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."
But board members in November 2017 seemed to reverse course by voting down a hydroponic certification ban. In the year since, the agency's view hasn't changed, casting doubt on whether the CFS petition will gain much traction. According to The Packer, the National Organic Program's deputy administrator, Jennifer Tucker, recently called the matter "a settled issue."
Hydroponic growers see themselves as responding to the demand for local organic food. Plenty, a San Francisco-based vertical farming company that grows leafy greens and herbs indoors without soil, wrote to the NOSB in 2017 saying all available innovative solutions must be explored, particularly those that can save resources.
"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," the company's testimony said.
Still, significant opposition remains to certifying hydroponic production methods as organic. The Cornucopia Institute, a Wisconsin-based nonprofit that endorsed the CFS petition, published a report last year on what it views as environmentally questionable practices in growing produce without soil. The group also filed a legal complaint about hydroponic organic certification with the USDA in 2016 and petitioned the NOSB in 2017 to adopt European Union-like rules requiring organic plants to be grown in soil.
The CFS petition pointed out other countries — including Canada, Mexico and the EU — do not allow organic certification of hydroponics or the importation of "organic" products produced hydroponically, and it urged the USDA to join with Canada and Mexico in banning their certification.
"Both of these entities have recognized that hydroponically grown foods are not 'organic,' and their actions show the organic industry is not injured by banning organic certification of hydroponically grown products. Organic standards for Americans should not be lesser than, and must be equivalent to, those of other countries’ organic standards," the petition said.
For producers, there is big money riding on the certification. According to a Organic Trade Association industry survey last year, sales of organic food grew 6.4% in 2017 to a record $45.2 billion. Organic products now comprise 5.5% of the total retail food market in the U.S., OTA said. And while that growth rate was lower than the 9% posted in 2016, organics still outpaced growth in the total U.S. food market, which the OTA reported was up by just 1.1% during that period.
It's doubtful the current USDA would reverse course in response to any arguments from CFS. A more likely scenario is the agency will simply change its rules to reflect the current practice of allowing hydroponically grown produce to be organically certified.
It's also possible the NOSB will reconsider the issue, especially if new members are appointed. Of the 15-member board, 13 current members participated in the November 2017 vote. Since it only passed by one vote, the CFS petition and the ongoing controversy could influence the dynamic going forward.
Still, the NOSB is an advisory body, so the USDA is free to ignore both its recommendations and its votes.