USDA to ban hydroponic, aquaponic and aeroponic techniques from organic certification

Industry News

Crops Subcommittee of National Organic Standards Board Sends Forward Formal Recommendation to Ban Hydroponics, Aquaponics and Aeroponics While Proposing Limits on Other Forms of Container Production Systems

The USDA recently published on their website the proposals written by the Crops Subcommittee of the National Organic Standards Board. The full membership of the NOSB will take up these proposals during the November 1Crops portion of the meeting with a potential vote coming that day or on November 2. The public will have an opportunity to comment on the proposals in writing, via a web conference on October 24, or in person on October 31.

What would be prohibited
The proposals would make aeroponics, aquaponics and hydroponics prohibited practices under Section 205.105 of the USDA Organic Regulations.

Aeroponics would be defined as “a variation of hydroponic plant production in which plant roots are suspended in air and misted with nutrient solution.”

Aquaponics would be defined as “a recirculating hydroponic plant production system in which plants are grown in nutrients originating from aquatic animal waste water, which may include the use of bacteria to improve availability of these nutrients to the plants. The plants improve the water quality by using the nutrients, and the water is then recirculated back to the aquatic animals.”

Hydroponics would be defined as “any container production system that does not meet the standard of a limit of 20% of the plants’ nitrogen requirement being supplied by liquid feeding, and a limit of 50% of the plants’ nitrogen requirement being added to the container after the crop has been planted.”

The proposals would allow for some types of container production systems. In general, all systems that can meet the nitrogen formulas laid out by the Crops Subcommittee would be eligible for certification. The Crop Subcommittee in their own words state that systems that do not “meet the standard of a limit of 20% of the plants’ nitrogen requirement being supplied by liquid feeding, and a limit of 50% of the plants’ nitrogen requirement being added to the container after the crop has been planted is defined as hydroponic and should not be allowed to be certified organic. For perennials, the nitrogen feeding limit is calculated on an annual basis.”

This proposed language implies that perennials would need to be transplanted each year to a new container. In addition, it also has implications for growers using the larger volume containers for staked vegetable plants that are grown to the Canadian Organic Standard regarding how they manage multiple crops after their first production cycle.

Transplants, ornamentals, herbs, sprouts, fodder, and aquatic plants are proposed to be exempted from these requirements.

The Subcommittee votes on the proposals were to make aeroponics a prohibited practice by an 8 to 1 vote, to make aquaponics a prohibited practice by a 7 to 2 vote, to make hydroponics a prohibited practice by a 6 to 3 vote and to create the nitrogen formulas by a 6 to 3 vote.

Additional Discussion and Alternative Framework Proposed by Minority of Crops Subcommittee
The web conference call conducted by the Crops Subcommittee and attended by the full membership of the NOSB on August 14, 2017 indicated that a two-thirds majority of the entire board might not support the same restrictions being proposed by the majority of the Crops Subcommittee to revoke certifications for many current organic operations.

The minority view of the Crops Subcommittee wishes to delay votes on the topic for at least one more meeting to more fully explore other options and approaches. In general, the minority view believes that organics is about more than just the soil. They state “Members of the organic community were drawn to organic foods and production for various reasons, including but not limited to: Environmental impacts of agriculture, resource conservation, avoidance of highly toxic synthetic pesticides and fertilizers, believed health benefits, local agriculture, etc. Some of these aspects were included in the law and regulations, while others were left out. Most members of the organic community are motivated by these concerns and more, each to varying degrees. Each of these concerns have tradeoffs which need to be balanced.”

More specifically, the minority view looks to build on the 2010 Recommendation that focused on the need to nurture the proper biology with their accompanying ecologies. The minority proposal focuses on how to develop a production standard that can verify the presence of a complex biology. Their initial suggestion, for which they request feedback from the industry, is to require the presence of at least four trophic levels present in the system.

“The minority view is based upon the beliefs that organic production should enforce responsible stewardship practices, address sustainability and conservation of resources (e.g. land, water, on-farm inputs, energy, biodiversity), and allow for novel developments in organic food production systems that assist in providing greater access of organic food to consumers.”

Justifications Given for Crops Subcommittee Proposal
The Crops Subcommittee states that the job of the NOSB is to be the “gatekeepers of the organic label.” In other words, it is their job to decide who can use the label and who should not be allowed to use the USDA Organic label.

The further state that the integrity of the USDA organic seal is “built upon the primacy of soil stewardship.” Other organic principles such as supporting and enhancing biodiversity, minimizing the negative effects of farming and producing safe, nutrition and tasty food are secondary to soil.

The Crops Subcommittee suggests that plants grown hydroponically are inferior to organic soil grown product since plants produced in containers have fewer metabolites because they have not been stressed as much as plants grown in the ground; there are differences in flavor and nutrition based upon different biology in the root zone; there are dangerous concentration of nitrates in the leaves of leafy greens grown using hydroponic production; hydroponics systems use too much energy; and a lack of “resilience.”

The Crops Subcommittee states that since Aquaponic Systems are hydroponic, they would not be eligible for certification. In addition, aquaponics would need to prove that they do not cause widespread food borne illness before being allowed for reconsideration for potential certification.

The Crops Subcommittee uses proposed Canadian standards and general organic guidelines from the British Soil Association as the justification for the limitations on post planting fertility additions and the use of liquid fertilizers.

The Crops Subcommittee also imply that any nutrients supplied through the irrigation system are the equivalent of non-organic nitrogen fertilizers.

Sprouts are exempted based on the idea that they only need water to grow. Seedlings and transplants are said to be “future crops” so they should be exempted since they will ultimately spend the majority of their time growing in the soil. Mushrooms are exempt since they are fungi and “don’t have a direct link to soil.” The Crops Subcommittee suggest that mushrooms may eventually need additional rulemaking.

No justification was given for the exemptions for herbs and ornamentals. There was a discussion of the wild harvested plant standard when discussing aquatic plants, but doubt remained over whether aquatic plants should wait until USDA publishes a final standard on aquaculture. So while the proposal states they should be exempt, the justification for the proposed standard contains contradictory information.

Short Rebuttal of Assertions of Crops Subcommittee
Nearly all the studies cited by the Crops Subcommittee look at non-organic hydroponic production systems. The Crops Subcommittee did not cite a single study showing any differences in nutrition or composition of organic foods harvested from organic hydroponic systems versus organic soil systems. The Crops Subcommittee did not cite a single study to support their assertion that organic hydroponic leafy greens contain different amounts of nitrates than field grown organic leafy greens. Based upon the definition of “resilience” for a production system, any crop grown in the field and subject to a complete loss from an ice storm and a flock of birds outside in the same ice storm suffering losses would also be non-resilient, so it is unclear what the standard for resilience would be.

In addition, the Crops Subcommittee continued to ignore the biological analysis included in the Hydroponic and Aquaponic Task Force report that showed even higher levels of biological activity and diversity in the organic hydroponic systems sampled relative to the levels typically found in healthy organic soils by the laboratory that conducted the analysis.

The Crops Subcommittee did not acknowledge (or know) that not all sprouts are grown only in water (so are sprouts requiring some outside nutrition now need to be classified as herbs to be exempt?). In addition, no additional guidance was given for how much time a plant for transplanting/seedling can be in a container (half their life, until fruit is harvested, a certain number of days?). In addition, no definitions were given to determine the difference between an herb, a microgreen and a leafy vegetable to know exactly what is exempt and what is not.

In fact, the justification given are so flawed that even the minority position of the Crops Subcommittee states, “It would be difficult for the NOP to implement [the proposed regulation] without additional justification.”

Next Steps
Your membership is critical to the efforts to secure a bright and sustainable future for a growing organic industry. Please consider joining the Coalition for Sustainable Organics. While we have made noteworthy progress in strengthening the legitimacy of container production systems with members of the National Organic Standards Board and with members of the organic establishment, much more work needs to be done to secure your right to continue to select the most appropriate site-specific solutions and production methods for your operations. Even if our efforts have helped win your crop an exemption under the current proposal, the justifications used by the Crops Subcommittee are so weak that your exemption could be under jeopardy again if the NOSB needs to make its recommendation logically consistent.    

There are several ways for you to communicate with the members of the NOSB. These include written comments and oral comments. You can send your written comments through through October 11. You can sign up to give testimony via webinar on October 24 or to sign up to give testimony in person on October 31 in Jacksonville, Florida.

The Crops Subcommittee appears to view organic production as a system of input substitution rather than a systems approach. Rather than thinking about how their farm is part of a larger system of cycling nutrients, they look to a checklist of potential nutrient sources such as compost, cover crops and items on an OMRI approved list. Rather than carefully thinking about how each of their production decisions impacts the biology in their system, they assume that the “magic” of the soil takes care of everything.

You can help set the record straight and ultimately strengthen the organic industry if you take the time to help educate the members of the NOSB on the importance of systems approaches, even if your product is currently exempted from the proposal. You can do this by explaining your organic systems plan, what environmental and other factors influenced your decision to use containers for certain crops, where your supplies come from (residues of plant and animal sources with some mined products), how you use biology to make nutrients available for your crops, what you do to optimize the biology in your system (your lab results which guide your choices of substrates, irrigation schedules, organic teas, inoculants, etc.), how you recycle materials (from irrigation water to composting green waste to reusing containers), and how you listen to the priorities of your customers (reducing residues on your product, using non-GMO seeds and being resource efficient). This can hopefully guide the thoughts of the NOSB members back into a more useful discussion regarding the future of various organic production systems.

Site of Fall NOSB meeting in Jacksonville, Florida

8 thoughts on “USDA to ban hydroponic, aquaponic and aeroponic techniques from organic certification

  1. i am planning to hve an organic hydroponic greenhouse in the near future.. i am looking forward for an advice since i do not have much knowledge about it, and the structure materials is difficult to find here in the philippines.. maybe someone could give me a technical guide and a detailed plan for the structure. organic material is not a problem here. god speed

  2. Government trying to eliminate the competition for big agribusinesses such as monsanto,who pay to get them relected. Aquaponics has to be organic or you would kill the fish.

  3. Hydroponics is as much organic as nutrients are organic. There is no pest control or any other defensive chemicals used, because hydroponic farms usually are grown in a very controlled environment. It’s nonsense to say it’s not organic…

  4. Nathan: It is not the government that is driving this, unfortunately its organic field farmers that are driving this. Some say its for philosophical reasons…others say its for financial/market reasons, but no one is producing scientific reasons.

  5. Something to seriously consider.
    Here is one that has never been mentioned concerning any organic farming and farming in general.
    Wind bourne chemicals from upwind such as acid rain, Smaug from cities, emissions from various types of production plants.
    All of those chemicals rain upon the plants in the fields. The high degree of pollution in the world today has a great effect on all farming.
    One thing that I have considered about hydroponic gardening is that the water can go through a filtering system. Or purification before being introduced to the hydroponic system.
    Hydroponic systems and greenhouses come close to being that of a laboratory and the conditions can be tightly regulated.
    Since the USDA chooses not to allow Hydroponics to be considered organic.
    Hydroponics should be an entire class of its own.
    I will coin the phrase.
    Since a hydroponic Greenhouse can be tightly regulated as far as purity of water, air quality and fertilization. Much like a laboratory.

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