Making the case for hydroponics and aquaponics as USDA organic certified

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A look back at how the Coalition for Sustainable Organics has worked to keep hydroponics and aquaponics as USDA organic-certified production methods.

Originally published in Issue 14, July 2016

Organic hydroponic and aquaponic growers are waiting for the results of a National Organic Program task force report which is scheduled for release this month. Members of the NOP Organic Hydroponic and Aquaponic Task Force were appointed last fall to examine hydroponic and aquaponic production practices and their alignment with USDA organic regulations. The task force includes members who are USDA organically-certified hydroponic growers.

Hydroponic and aquaponic growers are concerned that the report may contribute to the overturning of the long-standing USDA policy to certify their operations. The reason for this concern is that there is an effort by some field growers to stop the organic certification of hydroponic and aquaponic growers by USDA.

Photos courtesy of Coalition for Sustainable Organics

Lee Frankel, executive director of Coalition for Sustainable Organics, said the organization was formed in March 2016 to give growers a platform to preserve their ability to choose the most appropriate growing method, including those where the plant is not grown in the outer-crust of the Earth, to meet their site specific conditions when producing organically.

“The coalition members believe that sustainability and using natural inputs are the pillars of the organic philosophy and movement,” he said. “For instance, some of the initial members are from Arizona and southern California, where water availability is a major issue. Being able to grow hydroponically helps these growers use up to 10 times less water to be more sustainable.”

The coalition currently has 35 members and includes growers from the United States, Mexico and Canada. Some of these organic growers produce in the field as well as hydroponically.

Frankel said the supply of organic products is becoming more international.

“Nearly one-third of all USDA-certified operations are now outside the United States,” he said. “USDA sets the standards and determines what inputs can and cannot be used, regardless of country or method of production. USDA then accredits certifiers to inspect operations around the world.

“Opponents have cited the fact that there are a number of other countries that have a ban on hydroponic organic products. But if you examine the matter more closely, the issue is often a question of semantics. For example, growers in Canada and even in some of the Nordic countries in the European Union can grow organically in containers despite a ban on hydroponics in their regulations.”

Opposition to hydroponic, aquaponic production

Frankel said one of the main opposition groups pushing for the changes in USDA organic rules is Keep the Soil in Organic. The spokesperson for the group is David Chapman, who operates Long Wind Farm in Vermont. Chapman is a member of the NOP Organic Hydroponic and Aquaponic Task Force.

“Other groups that have spoken out against hydroponic organic production include many of the organic trade associations and organic certifiers in the northeastern part of the United States,” said Frankel. “Some of the certifiers have been working with field growers for a long time so they feel it is in their best interest to support their current customers.”

Using hydroponic production methods has allowed some organic growers to use up to 10 times less water and to be more sustainable.

While there is a philosophical debate as to what organic growing does or does not mean, Frankel said there is also an economic component.

“Retailers and consumers are voting with their pocketbooks,” he said. “They appreciate a variety of flavorful and available hydroponic and aquaponic organic products on a consistent basis that meet their expectations for produce grown without synthetic pesticides.

“Sustainability and economics go hand in hand. As inputs are reduced, seasons are extended and yields are increased, enabling growers to reduce their costs.”

Frankel said another benefit to growing in containers is that it is really scale neutral.

“It allows for people who are just getting started, who were not fortunate enough to inherit a family farm or are in urban areas with high land costs, to be able to grow organically,” he said.

Changes to current standards

Frankel said USDA selected members for the NOP task force from a cross-section of people in the organic industry. They represent a broad range of technical expertise, knowledge and philosophies to examine the current regulations.

“These people were tasked with helping clarify the regulatory issues and to describe the current technologies in use,” he said. “I expect that the task force will describe how container, hydroponic and aquaponic production systems operate, how they meet the current standards and identify different interpretations of the regulations.

“The task force is not technically supposed to make recommendations. The task force is analyzing whether the production technologies used today meet current USDA regulations, standards and laws. The task force will also determine whether any areas within those regulations may need to be updated, revised or defined based on their findings.”

The Coalition for Sustainable Organics includes growers from the United States, Mexico and Canada. Some of these organic growers produce in the field as well as hydroponically in greenhouses.

Frankel said once the report is released, the National Organics Standards Board will study the document and determine if it would like to recommend changes to the current regulations. NOSB has traditionally sought input and testimony from the organic industry prior to making recommendations on any proposed changes or modifications.

“If NOSB votes to forward recommendations to USDA, USDA would then translate those recommendations into formal proposed regulations and open them up to public comment,” he said. “USDA would then respond and would incorporate meaningful comments into the final rule.”

Time for growers to respond

Frankel said release of the task force report will be another opportunity for hydroponic growers to tell their story to prevent NOSB from starting the process to push the growers out of the organic market.

“Organic-certified hydroponic and aquaponic growers need to make a case about the validity of what they are doing,” he said. “In addition to their production methods being thousands of years old, USDA has long recognized the legitimacy of these systems. The systems have helped to grow demand for organics while reducing inputs and opening the market for new growers.

“Most critically from a philosophical perspective, these production systems use the same biological processes as those of organic field growers.”

Frankel said growers have a number of ways of bringing attention to their rightful place in the organic industry.

“Growers need to participate in the all-important public comment periods in the rulemaking process,” he said. “Growers can have their retail customers share their stories through company newsletters. Highlighting growing operations with CSAs (community supported agriculture) or reaching out to the local press can help spread a common message while building a grower’s own business. Hosting farm visits is often the easiest way to directly show how a grower’s operation is following the organic principles of cycling nutrients, eliminating synthetic pesticides and conserving resources such as land and water.”

Frankel said these farm visits for fellow growers, certifiers, elected officials, trade association staff, USDA officials and even NOSB members have proven to be an effective method to dispel any misconceptions spread by opponents of these organic production systems.

“From the coalition’s point of view, everyone deserves organics,” he said. “Containers are an integral part of a more resilient production system that allows for growers of all sizes and economic backgrounds to produce organic products that an increasing number of consumers are demanding.”


For more: Coalition for Sustainable Organics, (619) 587-45341;;

David Kuack is a freelance technical writer in Fort Worth, Texas;

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