Can Hydroponics Be Certified Organic? Industry Battle Rages On

Nov 20, 2016

U.S. organic food sales hit about $40 billion in 2015.
Credit Luke Runyon / Harvest Public Media

Can food be organic even if it’s not grown in soil?

Many hydroponic growers in the U.S. want access to the $40 billion organic market, but a board that advises the U.S. Agriculture Department on organic industry policy signaled Friday it would recommend excluding produce not in grown in soil from the federal organic program.

Currently, fruits and vegetables grown using hydroponics – an artificial system with added nutrients carried in water, but without soil – can be labeled as organic.

The National Organic Standards Board voted to go back to the drawing board at a biannual meeting in St. Louis, with the goal to come up with more specific definitions on what can and can’t be certified. The board did, however, indicate that it would suggest removing the organic label from produce grown via hydroponics.

The board, made up of public volunteers ranging from organic farmers to environmentalists and consumer advocates, offers recommendations it to the U. S. Department of Agriculture but does not set regulations itself.

Organic produce and hydroponic produce sharing a label has been controversial within the organics community. The desire to keep soil healthy and productive has long been a goal of many certified-organic growers. Hydroponic production doesn’t use soil at all.

Oklahoma farmer and NOSB member Emily Oakley says she’s heard from many small farmers who are worried that hydroponics will squeeze them out of competition because hydroponic operations don’t have to depend on tracts of land.

She says she’s disappointed the board didn’t vote down hydroponics in the meeting and send a strong message: Hydroponics are not organic.

“It’s a difficult issue to take a stand on,” she says. “They’re looking for the most clear language possible to allow them to take a stand.”

Some in the organic industry, including the organic standards watchdog group Cornucopia Institute, have argued that fruits and vegetables grown hydroponically can’t be certified organic because that system doesn’t adhere to the stated goals of organic production. Many hydroponic farmers contend that they are using a more sustainable process that protects the soil to an even greater extent, for the simple fact that they don’t use it.

In their discussion, members of the board said they were concerned with the term “container,” as many hydroponic growers use a system of tubes and large vats to grow produce. Board members worried the standards could be exploited, creating new loopholes for producers.

The board received more than 3,000 public comments, ranging from complaints about the mass scale that hydroponics can operate at, to the use of liquid nutrients, to the use of synthetic light in warehouses. Comments in favor of certifying hydroponics as organic said it is a sustainable method and it helps young farmers get started since they often can’t afford farmland.

“I think we need some more understanding on what we really feel is acceptable and not acceptable – where we draw the line in that spectrum,” board chair Tracy Favre said.

Nate Lewis, farm policy director with the Organic Trade Association, said in a statement to Harvest Public Media that the association “supports NOSB’s decision to send the proposal on bioponics back to subcommittee for further development and refinement of definitions. USDA’s strong organic regulations depend on clear definitions.”

The board also approved enhanced definitions of terminology that falls under the “excluded methods” section in the USDA organic regulations, further defining terms like “genetically engineered,” “genetically modified organisms” and “modern biotechnology.”

“We’ve heard the public loud and clear,” Favre said in the meeting, noting consumers expect no GMOs in their organic food.  

CRISPR, a form of technology used by scientists to delete a gene in an organism, was not removed from the excluded methods section, meaning that a vegetable produced via the technique could not be certified as organic.