WASHINGTON, July 22, 2016 – Hydroponic growing systems that do not use soil should nonetheless be considered for organic certification if they can achieve “equivalent soil functions,” a new report prepared for USDA’s National Organic Standards Board recommends.

The Hydroponic and Aquaponic Task Force report, which will now be reviewed by NOSB, did not provide a unanimous endorsement for organic certification of hydroponics. The task force members appeared to be split between recommending expansion of the organic industry to include hydroponics or urging NOSB to retain the program’s longtime emphasis on soil ecology.

However, a subcommittee of the task force that focused on the new growing systems said flatly: “It is critically important to consider hydroponic and aquaponic production systems as eligible for organic certification, because these practices conserve incredible amounts of water, dramatically reduce food safety risks and pose very low environmental impacts – while at the same time holding soil-plant biology and the use of the same animal/plant-based inputs, as soil-field farmers, at the core of their practice.”

The report is certain to be widely read and debated in the fast-growing organics sector, many members of which had raised serious concerns about the task force earlier this year. In a Feb. 17 letter to USDA, dozens of organic farmers and organizations called for a moratorium on the certification of new hydroponic and aquaponic operations until USDA issued a new rule setting standards for those operations.

“Due to the lack of formal organic greenhouse standards, organic certification agencies have been acting independently and creating and recreating their own rules to address public concerns, particularly with respect to the organic soil requirement,” the letter said. “While some certifiers allow crops to be grown in an undefined ‘biodegradable substrate,’ others do not.”

The letter, which is included in the task force’s report, also cited “widespread concern” about the purpose of the task force, “which appears to be to rewrite rather than to clarify” NOSB’s 2010 recommendation not to allow organic hydroponic production because it is not soil-based.

Most of the members of the task force “seem to have a vested interest in advancing organic certification of hydroponics rather than in clarifying the 2010 NOSB recommendations,” the letter said.

NOSB said then that hydroponics, which it defined as “the production of plants in nutrient rich solutions or moist inert material,” should not be considered as an organic growing method because it excludes “the soil-plant ecology intrinsic to organic farming systems and (National Organic Program) regulations governing them.”

But the task force said it is important to distinguish between “inorganic” hydroponic systems that use sterile/inert synthetic solutions to feed plants, and “organic” systems, which “contain substantial soil biology including large numbers of bacteria, fungi, protozoa and nematodes, found in soil. In many cases, organic hydroponic systems use the same organic potting soil mixes used in common organic pot containers.”

Organic hydroponic systems are a form of “bioponics,” which the report defines as “a growing method that completely relies on a soil food web micro-biological ecosystem to provide nutrients to a crop.”

The Coalition for Sustainable Organics, which represents “containerized growers,” welcomed the report.

“Containerized growing methods rely on the same natural inputs as open field growers to nourish and grow crops,” the group said in a July 21 release.

The coalition also took note of environmental benefits cited in the report. Using published studies, the report said “containerized growing can and has reduced water use by over 90 percent per pound of fresh produce grown compared to open field systems while using less than 10 percent of the land relative to open field growers.”

In the debate over whether hydroponic and aquaponics operations can be considered organic, the core issue appears to be soil.

“The NOSB will ultimately have to recommend its clear intention for the role of soil,” the report said. “This will be a very important recommendation for the future of organic certification. No matter what one thinks about which path is best, we can all accept that many in the organic community are opposed to the inclusion of hydroponic as organic. Failure to address that concern will inevitably undermine public and farmer support for the USDA Organic label.”

Nathaniel Lewis, farm policy director of the Organic Trade Association, said OTA has not taken a formal position on the task force’s recommendations but that he understands the arguments on both sides.

“What we’re essentially faced with as an organic sector is, do we give an opportunity for modern production practices to have a role?” he said.

The relationship that farmers have with the soil “remains the focal point of organic,” he said, explaining why some people might feel uncomfortable welcoming into the sector “these adaptive, recently constructed facilities that use sophisticated technology to bring goods to market.”

Nevertheless, “All of these practices need to be part of the discussion,” he said.

In a memo to the NOSB, Agricultural Marketing Service Deputy Administrator Miles McEvoy asked for a recommendation, which AMS will then use “to establish clear standards for (hydroponic and aquaponic) production systems. The public will be invited to provide comments during your deliberations, as well as when AMS develops guidance or initiates rulemaking on this issue.”


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