WASHINGTON, Nov. 30, 2016 - The question of whether hydroponic growing should be officially eligible for organic certification remains open following a National Organic Standards Board decision to gather more information.
At the recent NOSB meeting in St. Louis, indoor growing in all its permutations was arguably the hottest topic on the agenda. But the board, which makes recommendations to USDA’s National Organic Program (NOP), indicated it did not have enough detail to address the myriad issues raised by the indoor growing methods.
Those methods include aeroponics, in which plants are raised without a growing medium but receive nutrients through misting; hydroponics, in which nutrients are delivered through water; and aquaponics, in which fish and plants are raised together.
Taken together, the NOSB task force that examined the issue and delivered a report to the board in July, referred to the practices as “bioponics.”
But the task force was split on the question of whether any or all of those methods could be considered organic, leaving the board with a document without a clear recommendation. The result was a 10-3 NOSB vote to send the matter back to NOSB’s crops subcommittee.
Importantly, however, that was accompanied by a 12-0 vote for a resolution upholding NOSB’s 2010 statement – never translated into USDA regulations – that hydroponics is not compatible with organic production systems.
“It was frustrating that we couldn’t get a detailed enough document,” said NOSB member Jean Richardson, a University of Vermont law professor and organic maple syrup producer. And
NOSB chair Tracy Favre, newly appointed director of Quality Assurance International, said the task force “made our job very difficult – to come up with a recommendation when the experts couldn’t reach a consensus.”
Richardson said that bioponics have a future in organic agriculture, but that “straight hydro,” plants that are fed water and nutrients through a “piped medium,” probably don’t. In the meantime, because they are not expressly prohibited, hydroponic and related operations remain eligible for organic certification. There are currently 52 certified organic hydroponic/aquaponic operations and 69 certified operations that grow crops in containers, according to the crops subcommittee’s meeting report to the NOSB.
The delay in taking action translates into uncertainty in the marketplace, said NOSB member Francis Thicke, an organic dairy farmer in Iowa. But he thinks there’s enough information now to prohibit hydroponic operations from being certified as organic.
“I’m a soil scientist,” he said. “I would rather not see a whole new generation of these hydroponics operations.”
If containerized growing “takes off,” he said, “we could have most of our fruits and vegetables grown in containers. I don’t think that’s what we want.”
That’s the “philosophical issue” at the root of the debate, Favre said: Whether or not a system that does not have plants planted in the ground can be considered organic.”
Charlie Shultz, a former organic crop production inspector who helped prepare the task force report, “strongly encouraged” NOSB to continue allowing certifying agencies to consider bioponic systems for the organic imprimatur.
In comments to the board, he said, “Soil is not the basis of all life, water is… Most bioponic producers not only conserve arable land for other soil-based uses, but also enhance the fertility of their whole farm soil through composting or other methods of incorporating organic matter back into the land.”
Favre said it’s unclear what action a future NOSB will take. She, like Richardson and three other NOSB members, is leaving the board next month, which means five new members will have to get up to speed on the issue. That, and the need to gather public comment on any proposals, could make it difficult to turn around a proposal by April, when the board next convenes.
Favre did say she doubted that currently certified indoor growers will lose that status if USDA ultimately decides to adopt new rules. “The NOP does not have a history of jerking certifications for operations that are already certified,” she said.
Board recommends banning of carrageenan in organic production
The board did take action on another controversial issue, narrowly approving a recommendation that USDA prohibit the use of carrageenan in organic production, despite conflicting data over whether the substance causes any human health problems.
A technical report commissioned by NOSB said “definitive conclusions regarding the varying degrees of human susceptibility to inflammation effects of carrageenan cannot be made from the available literature." Citing “different experimental results,” however, it also said “it is reasonable to expect that humans may also experience varying degrees of sensitivity to carrageenan in the diet."
Made from red seaweed, carrageenan is used as a stabilizer and thickener in products such as infant formula and protein shakes. The Center for Food Safety backed the decision, saying that “studies have raised significant concerns that carrageenan consumption may pose certain health risks, such as intestinal inflammation and inflammatory bowel disease.”
Besides, said Cameron Harsh, CFS senior manager for organic and animal policy, many manufacturers have been able to eliminate carrageenan from their products, showing that it is not essential for organic agriculture.
The International Food Additives Council took a different view, saying carrageenan’s use in food “is supported by decades of research and approvals by every food regulatory body in the world.” Removing carrageenan from organic foods and beverages “will result in products that are less nutritious, less appealing, less enjoyable and more expensive.”
The board also voted 14-0 that genetic modification techniques such as gene editing and gene silencing should not be allowed in organic agriculture.
“The board’s hard-fought proactive stance on synthetic biology will both help preserve the integrity of organic standards and raise awareness about this virtually unregulated and unlabeled form of genetic engineering,” said Dana Perls, food and technology policy campaigner with Friends of the Earth.
But the NOSB materials/GMO subcommittee discussion document, prepared for the meeting, noted that detection is difficult. “In the newer gene splicing and gene editing technologies there is no foreign DNA introduced,” the document says. “The DNA in the genes has been moved around, or sequences introduced from within the same genome that change the expression of certain traits. Many if not most of these methods are not detectable with the existing tests for GMOs.
“While it is likely that such testing may be developed in the future, it becomes very challenging for the National Organic Program and Accredited Certifying Agents to determine if any new variety was produced with one of the newer excluded technologies.”
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