Organic hydroponics likely to provoke legal challenge

A legal challenge to organic certification of hydroponic crops is likely after a USDA advisory board voted against banning such systems.
Mateusz Perkowski

Capital Press

Published on November 15, 2017 2:51PM

Hydroponic Butter leaf lettuce is grown in a greenhouse in this Capital Press file photo. An advisory board to the USDA recently voted against banning hydroponics from organic certification.

Matthew Weaver/Capital Press

Hydroponic Butter leaf lettuce is grown in a greenhouse in this Capital Press file photo. An advisory board to the USDA recently voted against banning hydroponics from organic certification.

Hydroponic growers won’t be prohibited from getting their crops certified as organic, but the controversy over soil-free organic farming is unlikely to end.

The National Organic Standards Board, which advises USDA on organic policy, recently voted 8-7 against banning hydroponic methods from organic production after years of debate.

Nonetheless, the Cornucopia Institute, an organic industry watchdog group, and other critics believe that hydroponic production is contrary to the Organic Food Production Act, a federal law that created national organic standards.

Under that statute, farms must be operated under an organic plan “designed to foster soil fertility” through crop rotation, cover crops and the spreading of manure and compost.

Other provisions of the law also emphasize soil fertility, health and preservation.

In the Cornucopia Institute’s view, this language clearly bars organic certification of soil-less hydroponic production, in which crops are grown in an inert medium such as coconut husks or perlite and irrigated with nutrient-infused water.

“It’s likely to result in a legal challenge. You sue the federal government when its actions conflict with the law,” said Mark Kastel, the group’s co-founder and senior farm policy analyst.

“The law requires building soil fertility, but how can that be accomplished without soil?” Kastel said.

Apart from the philosophical reasons, critics see hydroponics as posing an economic threat to traditional organic farmers.

Highly mechanized hydroponic greenhouses are tremendously productive, reducing the per-unit cost of production, Kastel said.

These massive operations are cornering the market for popular produce crops, such as peppers, tomatoes and cucumbers, he said.

“That’s not farming, it’s something else,” said Kastel. “It’s an industrial process for growing our food.”

Hydroponic production has long been controversial in the organic industry and some organic certifiers don’t accept the method.

Although OFPA was enacted in 1990, it was more than a decade before USDA’s regulations implementing the law became effective.

During the interim, the National Organic Standards Board issued a recommendation to allow labeling of crops grown in soil-free media as organic as long as they followed all other organic requirements.

However, that recommendation did not have the effect of law.

Since the National Organic Program regulations became effective in 2002, the legality of hydroponic production being included in organics has been fiercely debated.

In 2010, the board issued a recommendation against allowing hydroponic production in organic systems, but USDA didn’t take action on it.

The hydroponic question continued to divide the NOSB and a special task force convened to ponder the matter, ultimately leading to a vote on prohibiting the practice during the board’s autumn meeting in November.

Kastel believes that USDA has “stacked” the board with members sympathetic to major organic producers and manufacturers, resulting in the vote against banning hydroponics.

Capital Press was unable to reach representatives of the USDA or the Coalition for Sustainable Organics, which advocates for hydroponic growers.

In submitted testimony, the hydroponic company Plenty Ag argued the soil-less method diversifies the organic industry and allows U.S. producers to compete against foreign imports.

Organic food is growing in popularity but organic acreage in the U.S. is not keeping up, so high-yielding hydroponic systems can fill that gap, the company said.

Unlike regular farms, which require three years to convert to organic production, hydroponic systems are considered organic immediately as long as they only use organic inputs.

“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,” according to Plenty Ag.


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