WASHINGTON, Nov. 2, 2017 - The National Organic Standards Board on Wednesday rejected a proposal to prohibit hydroponics in organic production, as defined by the board’s subcommittee on crops, disappointing growers who want organic certification restricted to crops grown in soil.

The vote was held during NOSB’s semiannual meeting in Jacksonville, Florida, after two full days of stakeholder comment, mostly by supporters and opponents of hydroponic farming.

The 15-member board – an advisory panel to USDA -- also rejected a motion to prohibit aquaponics, a system for farming fish and plants together in a mutually beneficial cycle, while approving a proposal to withhold the organic label for aeroponics, or crops grown in an air-mist environment. Organic certification allows producers to sell their products at premium prices.

The recommendation that was approved – prohibiting aeroponics in organic production – now goes to USDA, where Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue could make a final decision. A source says the value of crops grown aeroponically is minimal.

Still, the results of the voting could further widen the divide between purists, like the Cornucopia Institute, which rejects any move to break the nexus between crops and soil, and the more mainstream organic community, as represented by the Organic Trade Association, which brags of organic food sales reaching $43 billion last year, the first time the market had topped the $40 billion mark.

In comments to the NOSB on Tuesday, Cornucopia’s co-founder, Mark Kastel, cited the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990. “OFPA is clear,” he said, according to a tweet on Cornucopia’s website. “Careful ‘fostering of soil fertility’ is required by the law. You can’t nurture soil fertility without … Soil! This is your chance to protect the true meaning of organics rather than making it a mere marketing slogan.”

Maggie McNeil, a spokeswoman for OTA, said the association would have no immediate comment on the results of the voting.

In comments provided to NOSB on Oct. 11, OTA said it disagrees with the crop subcommittee definition of hydroponics: “Any container production system that does not meet the standard of a limit of 20 percent of the plants’ nitrogen requirement being supplied by liquid feeding, and a limit 50 percent of the plants’ nitrogen requirement added to the container after the crop has been planted.”

OTA said it appreciates the challenge the board faced in “accurately defining types of operations along the soil-less growing spectrum,” while recognizing that the “inconsistent use of terms, due to a lack of final definitions, has led to confusion and further controversy in this discussion.

“However, we do not support defining a particular type of production by what it is NOT, particularly when NOSB is also proposing to prohibit that type of production. Instead, OTA suggests CS retain the definition accepted by NOSB in 2010: The production of normally terrestrial, vascular plants in nutrient rich solutions or in an inert, porous, solid matrix bathed in nutrient rich solutions.”

The Coalition for Sustainable Organics said hundreds of currently certified organic growers “breathed a sigh of relief” following the NOSB votes.

The end result of the hydroponic and aquaponic proposals “would have removed significant supplies of currently certified organic fresh vegetables and fruits from the market,” the group's executive director, Lee Frankel, said in a statement. “We need more product that meets the high standards of the USDA Organic Program, not less. The most viable option to achieve this goal is to use all certified systems and scales of production, not to kick certain growing practices out of the industry. The organic industry should embrace and promote diversity rather than stifle it.”

The Recirculating Farms Coalition also welcomed the results of the NOSB voting.

“We’re very pleased that the NOSB voted not to prohibit hydroponic and aquaponic farms from USDA Organic certification,” said Marianne Cufone, RFC’s executive director. “Many products from these farms already carry a USDA Organic label and to now withdraw that would be irresponsible and confusing for consumers and farmers.”

“By siding with current science and recognizing that existing law purposely leaves the door open for various farming methods, the NOSB is sending a critical message that sustainability and innovation are valuable in U.S. agriculture. These goals are at the center of the nationwide local food movement and spur growth of urban and rural farms alike, by a wide range of people. Inclusiveness is important in our food system.”

The Recirculating Farms Coalition is a collaborative group of farmers, educators, non-profit organizations and many others committed to building local sources of healthy, accessible food.

(This story was updated at 11:40 a.m. with comment from Coalition for Sustainable Organics.)