WASHINGTON, Nov. 18, 2015 - Pressure by organic farmers and a host of other organic advocates is building for USDA to disallow certification of hydroponic produce as organic.
Hydroponic systems are already huge, accounting for more than half of U.S. fresh-market tomatoes, and continue to expand as part of the continued global trend to produce vegetables in greenhouses. A few are gaining USDA’s organic seal of approval, much to the chagrin of most traditional organic advocates.
The problem: No soil. For organic producers, farming means using tillage and cultivation practices that maintain or improve the physical and chemical profiles and biological balance of the soil. Thus, hydroponics and its sister systems such as aquaponics abandon the longstanding mantra of organic growers: “Soil is the source of life; feed the soil, not the plant.”
A recent statement by the broadest voice for American organics, the National Organic Coalition, doesn’t mince words: “Hydroponic systems represent the antithesis of organic systems and go against the definition of ‘organic production’ set out in [the law].”
Like many organic farmers, Dave Chapman, a Vermont organic tomato grower, says he has “no problem with hydroponics,” though he helped lead a growers’ protest against hydroponic certification at the October meeting of the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB).
Hydroponics, Chapman says, “is ingenious. It works well, which is why virtually all the conventional greenhouse vegetables are grown this way,” he says. “Some of my best friends are hydroponic growers. They know a great deal about how to control the climate in the greenhouse to grow a good crop. But it is not organic.”
Meanwhile, the NOSB, an advisory body appointed by the secretary of agriculture, has no regulatory power but has taken an explicit position on this issue. An NOSB committee spent over six years trying to update standards for organic greenhouse production, including hydroponic, and concluded in April 2010 that hydroponics “certainly cannot be classified as certified organic growing methods . . .”
Though USDA takes the NOSB’s lead on most organic rules, it didn’t on this one. This year, USDA named a 16-member task force to report to the NOSB on hydroponic and aquaponic practices and how well they align with USDA’s organic standards. Organic growers say the board’s 2010 determination did not lack for detail or clarity, and NOC says the task force won’t be helpful to those who want hydroponics disallowed, since most panel members are hydroponic operators or advocates, and “the majority of those appointed actually disagree with the NOSB  recommendation.”
Also aligned against certifying hydroponics is the Organic Trade Association. Nate Lewis, OTA’s crop and livestock specialist, said that whatever USDA’s intent with the task force, the organic regs will have to define hydroponic production if it’s to be disallowed. “Can you grow organically without soil? What is soil, what is not? What’s allowed?” he asks.
In any case, Lewis says, certification of hydroponics spells trouble for U.S. organic exports, since the European Union, Canada, Japan and other major markets exclude hydroponics from organic designation, and Mexico will soon approve rules to do the same. “We see it as a barrier to international trade,” he says. Canada excluded U.S. hydroponic crops, for example, when the U.S. and Canada approved trade reciprocity for their organic standards in 2009.
On the other hand, certifying hydroponics has plenty of advocates. Why? Especially in cool climates, hydroponic greenhouses allow for improved pest and climate control and stretch the frost-free season. What’s more, in dry California and other arid regions, hydroponics can greatly boost water-efficiency.
Sarah Costin, co-owner of A Bee Organic, a California-based group of organic certifiers who approve hydroponic greenhouses, says such systems “use 65 to 90 percent less water than other production systems,” and even “way, way less water than in drip irrigation.”
She said organic hydroponics “gets complicated but it does work.” Operators must have “a testing system, and they have to stay within the regulations or they can’t be certified,” she said. Micronutrients are tested in the plants, and must “show that the plants need the micronutrients. Then, where is the nitrogen coming from? That’s the thing we really focus on, because whether in soil or hydroponic that’s where a lot of the stuff that’s not allowed shows up.”
Costin points to California’s gigantic output of fruit and vegetables. “Frankly, I prefer a farm, and I’ve been around organic farms since I was in my twenties.” But, she says, “We have to be realistic here. Climate change is a reality, and hydroponics is huge for conservation of water . . . for sustainable growing and for local growing year-round.”
Marianne Cufone, who heads the Recirculating Farms Coalition, a diverse nationwide network of aquaponic growers, chefs, consumer advocates and others, says the organic label is the hallmark for healthful foods, and national organic standards should be expanded to accommodate hydroponics and aquaponics.
“Organic farmers amend the soil all the time to grow good products. It’s really no different in water-based growing: You amend the water, and if you are restricted to using certain organic materials to do that, I think that earns an organic label. A lot of the growers employ procedures that are better than organic standards,” in terms of pesticide uses, for example, or conserving limited water supplies, she says.
Dave Abazs, a National Organic Consumers Association board member who farms near Lake Superior’s northern shore, takes a somewhat different view. He has designed soil-absent systems in the past. “Done properly, hydroponics and aquaponics can be done to meet organic certification. There are nice certified organic seeds and nutrients available that provide the plants with what they need,” he says. “For aquaponics, it really depends upon your water profile and what needs are being met for the plants. Typically, you need to add calcium into the system.”
However, Abazs isn’t a fan of organic crops that don’t come from the soil. Plus, he says hydroponic systems can be energy hogs, especially in cold climates. Though hydroponic farms may be highly water-efficient, long months of heating greenhouses and operating hydroponics in his region makes them energy inefficient. He thinks USDA organic standards should require such systems to be sustainable on an energy-efficient basis before they can be certified.
Odds are, the hydroponics certification debate will get hotter, not cooler, as more such operations gain certification. Though USDA may press the NOSB to reverse its 2010 recommendation, it’s unlikely to do so. Meanwhile, Chapman and others have so far collected signatures of more than 500 organic farmers on a petition asking USDA to make NOSB’s recommendation the law.
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