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Can Hydroponics be Organic?

Chrys Ostrander
Hydroponics is a method of growing plants without soil, using mineral nutrient solutions in a water solvent. Terrestrial plants may be grown with only their roots exposed to the mineral solution, or the roots may be supported by an inert medium, such as perlite or gravel. The nutrients in hydroponics can come from an array of different sources; these can include but are not limited to byproduct from fish waste, duck manure, or normal nutrients. (wikipedia)

Hydroponics as a food-growing industry is experiencing a tremendous growth spurt, mostly in the form of urban, indoor hydroponic warehouses. They are popping up everywhere. With land costs skyrocketing and causing many people to wonder if the small family farm can survive in such a price climate, entrepreneurs are finding a good financial return setting up warehouse farms instead. Not only do these warehouses produce profits for the innovators who start them, they are capable of producing foods that are very healthy looking, clean and pleasing to the eye.

Many hydroponic businesses seek and obtain organic certification so they can receive the higher price that organic foods usually bring at the checkout counter. Some certifying agencies refuse to certify hydroponic operations. That's not stopping hydroponic growers from getting organic certification elsewhere, but it does reflect some confusion in the way organic certification is administered. A debate has raged for years over whether food grown without soil should be allowed to be certified organic, since organic farming is, simply put, fundamentally defined by how growers treat soil. The National Organic Program that oversees organic certification has not ruled definitively on the subject, also adding to confusion. The National Organic Standards Board (NOSB), a deliberative body that advises the National Organic Program, is in the midst of debating the topic as this issue of the Inland FoodWise Newsletter goes to press.

One question must be asked about growing plants in water that have evolved to grow in soil: Are they nutritionally equivalent?

Dave Chapman, an organic farmer from Vermont and maintainer of the website, has been leading the opposition to continuing to allow hydroponics to be certified organic and has some very well informed opinions on these matters. He also has a lot of energy for bringing his ideas and passion for the integrity of the organic certification process to different communities around the country. He writes,

"There is a legitimate question of whether relying on a healthy soil to provide plant nutrition makes a difference in the nutrition of the harvested food. Relying on a healthy soil means relying on the active biology and ecology of that soil, with all the insects and animals, as well as the bacteria and fungi. There is considerable evidence that the activity of the soil life contributes to a substantially different result in terms of nutrition, but this is not a simple subject.
"Our health comes from the soil, through the plants. Having healthy soil means having healthy biology that can release the soil minerals in the proper amounts, and put them into a form that the plants can take up. Then the plants can utilize those minerals to help to make proteins and biomolecules such as antioxidants and polyphenolics that are very important to the health of all animals. It’s necessary for that connection to be made with living soil, because we need at least 33 minerals (some in a very trace amount) to make these biomolecules, and to thus be healthy. For example, some of the antioxidants such as ergothioneine that are taken up from living soil are important in cell wall integrity, which protects the DNA in our cells from exposure to chemicals and atmospheric radiation.  There are antioxidants that are formed by microbes in the soil. There are antioxidants that are made by properly fed plants. And there are anitoxidants that we can make in our bodies as well.
"A healthy soil makes nutrients, proteins, and anitoxidants available to plants in the right ratios, quantities, and even molecular shapes for optimal plant health. This, in turn, leads to the plant being able to manufacture its own antioxidants that will confer health benefits on the animals that eat them.
"The beauty of the organic system is that we don’t need to fully understand these processes to benefit from them. These systems coevolved over hundreds of millions of year to serve each other. We turn away from this complex ecosystem at our peril. These are the foundational principles of organic farming. It was never intended that organic should mean JUST the avoidance of biocides. The ability to stop using pesticides was supposed to be the result of the improved nutrition of a plant growing in a healthy soil, EVEN IF WE DON’T FULLY UNDERSTAND ALL THE MECHANISMS BY WHICH THAT HAPPENS. Without a doubt, a hydroponically produced vegetable or fruit will be different nutritionally from one grown in a healthy soil. Exactly how is uncertain."

The National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) is a Federal Advisory Board made up of 15 volunteers from across the organic community (with representatives of the following members of that community: Organic Producers, Environmentalists / Resource Conservationists, Consumers / Public Interest Advocates, Handlers / Processors, Retailers, Scientists and USDA Accredited Certifying Agents). Established by the Organic Foods Production Act (OFPA), the NOSB considers and makes recommendations to the National Organic Program on a wide range of issues involving the production, handling, and processing of organic products.

A good description of the NOSB process as well as a detailed accounting of the opposing positions regarding the organic certification of hydroponically grown foods can be found in the document "National Organic Standards Board Crops Subcommittee Discussion Document - Aeroponics/Hydroponics/Aquaponics" (February 15, 2017). Here are a few excerpts:

"The National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) has taken up the issue of hydroponics several times in the past [since 1995], and has made several recommendations to the National Organic Program (NOP). To date, the NOP has not undertaken rulemaking based on any of the NOSB recommendations...
"In 2010 the NOSB issued a recommendation titled Production Standards for Terrestrial Plants in Containers and Enclosures (Greenhouses). The recommendation contained the following statement:
'Observing the framework of organic farming based on its foundation of sound management of soil biology and ecology, it becomes clear that systems of crop production that eliminate soil from the system, such as hydroponics or aeroponics, cannot be considered as examples of acceptable organic farming practices. Hydroponics...certainly cannot be classified as certified organic growing methods due to their exclusion of the soil-plant ecology intrinsic to organic farming systems and USDA/NOP regulations governing them...'
"Accredited organic certification agencies have been permitted to certify hydroponic operations as organic by the National Organic Program, with some agencies certifying hydroponic operations and some choosing not to certify this distinct production system. The lack of clear and detailed standards for this water-based nutrient delivery growing system has led to the need for the National Organic Standards Board to review this issue in a holistic way, and recommend a path forward to the National Organic Program.
"In 2015, the NOP established a Hydroponic/Aquaponic Task Force (henceforth referred to as Task Force) to further explore this issue and write a report giving guidance to the NOSB on whether hydroponic/aquaponic production should be allowed under the current organic regulations; and if not, how the regulations could or should be changed. The report was completed in July 20161.
"In consideration of the information presented in the Task Force Report and from past NOSB recommendations, the Crops Subcommittee prepared a proposal for consideration by the full NOSB at the Fall 2016 NOSB meeting. The proposal included the following motion:
'Motion to allow bioponic (including hydroponic, aeroponic, or aquaponic) as consistent with organic production under the provisions and recommendations to be developed by the NOSB in 2017.'
"The motion was worded “to allow bioponic” in order to require a 2/3 majority of the board to overturn the previous NOSB recommendation (in 2010) that soilless production is not consistent with organic production. The Crops Subcommittee vote on the motion to allow bioponics failed by a vote of two in favor and five opposed...

In the fall of 2016 the NOSB "voted to send it back to the Crops Subcommittee for further work. However, the NOSB did pass the following resolution at the fall 2016 meeting:

'The NOSB respects the efforts of the former NOSB that led to their 2010 recommendation on terrestrial plants in greenhouses. The NOSB recognizes that the foundation of organic agriculture is based upon a systems approach to producing food in the natural environment, which respects the complex dynamic interaction between soil, water, air, sunlight, plants and animals needed to produce a thriving agro-ecosystem.
'At the heart of the organic philosophy is the belief that our responsibilities of good stewardship go beyond production of healthy foods and include protection of natural resources, biodiversity and the ecosystem services upon which we all depend. We encourage future NOSB to consider this wider perspective as the board undertakes the challenges of assessing and defining innovations in agriculture that may be compatible in a system of organic production.'"

These two paragraphs reflect the division still present in the NOSB. The first paragraph in the block quote above seems to have been written by the opponents of hydroponics in organic agriculture while the second seems to have been written by those in favor of certifying hydroponically grown foods as organic. This is because "The hydroponic proponents on the Task Force contended that advantages of hydroponic systems included water conservation, food safety, disease suppression, nutrient conservation and retention, and soil conservation (because of lack of soil)" and therefore, if one considers the "wider perspective," these should be good things-- organic things.

Interestingly, the NOSB Discussion Document expends a good many more words explaining why the stated arguments in favor of organic hydroponics are bogus. It's worth a read.

In mid-August, the National Organic Standards Board held a public teleconference webcast during which they once again discussed the issue of whether hydroponically-grown food should be allowed to be certified organic and once again there was no consensus. A vote on the issue is scheduled to take place during the next NOSB meeting from October 31 to November 2, 2017.

Every chance Dave Chapman gets, he urges people to send "a message to the USDA that we want strong organic standards. This Fall there will be a vote in the NOSB on prohibiting hydroponics from organic certification. Again! They already recommended this 7 years ago, but that recommendation was ignored by NOP director Miles MacEvoy. As a result, most of the 'organic' tomatoes sold in supermarkets are now hydroponic. Over 1/3 of the peppers and cucumbers are hydroponic. Many of the berries are hydroponic. The National Organic Program was created to protect organic integrity. Instead, it is becoming the handmaiden of corporate interests and allowing the organic seal to become a sham," he says.

Those are strong words, but the growing influence of the biggest players in the organic sector on the workings of the NOSB has been another source of debate for years. The NOSB was purposefully designed to be a diverse body and one that allowed an equal voice for all its members, be they representing big business or small-scale family farms. In a recent post to his site, Chapman exposes an effort by industrial-scale food companies who dabble in organics to try and take control of the NOSB so that they can more easily sway the NOSB to officially recommend methods and substances for inclusion into the certified organic fold without so much pesky public input and transparency. They are doing it by having an "astroturf" industry front group called Coalition For Sustainable Organics pay lobbyists to finesse some industrial-scale facetime with Congress members as they suck up to them at recent Senate hearings in the hopes congress will intervene and declaw the NOSB. It's also quite a read: "Coalition For Sustainable Profits declares war on National Organic Program at US Senate." From that:

"Senate Agriculture Chairman Roberts said at the hearing that the federal National Organic Standards Board and organic regulations were rife with 'uncertainty and dysfunction', and asked 'producers' for recommendations on how to improve the advisory board.
"'These problems create an unreliable regulatory environment and prevent farmers that choose organics from utilizing advancements in technology and operating their businesses in an efficient and effective manner,' Roberts said in his opening statement during a hearing on local and international markets for organic foods and specialty crops. 'Simply put, this hurts producers and economies in rural America.'
"The Coalition’s message was clear. Organic standards should be molded to enhance the profitability of the large corporate farms that are quickly coming to dominate 'certified organic'. Going far beyond defending hydroponics, the Coalition attacked the NOSB. They also dismissed the proposed rules eliminating CAFO (Contained Animal Feeding Operation) chicken operations as being a minor 'outlier issue.' It seems that Roberts, the large CAFO operators, and the Coalition are birds of a feather. The Big Boys have had enough. We are witnessing an attempted hostile takeover of the National Organic Program."

In August Chapman could be seen protesting the recent invasion of organic standards by hydroponics at a rally of organic farmers and their customers in Massachusetts. That rally was part of the "Many Rallies in Many Valleys" campaign taking place between now and the NOSB meeting on Oct 31 to Nov 2. At the moment there are 17 Rallies planned across the country, and more are being organized every week. Chapman writes

"At the Fall NOSB meeting, they will vote whether to permit hydroponic production in organic certification. We are up against a large, well-funded coalition of hydroponic and CAFO producers seeking to take over the National Organic Program. They are united in their desire to subvert the Organic Food Production Act, and "reform" the NOSB to include 5 new seats dedicated to industrial producers and vendors. The hydroponic lobby announced this plan while testifying to organic opponent Senator Pat Roberts and the Senate Ag committee. This Fall will be the last chance we have to prevent this. It is critical that the organic community rise up and speak out."

Chapman urges those concerned about the integrity of the National Organic Program to send a message to the USDA: "We want strong organic standards," he writes. "This Fall there will be a vote in the NOSB on prohibiting hydroponics from organic certification. Again! They already recommended this 7 years ago, but that recommendation was ignored by NOP director Miles McEvoy. As a result, most of the "organic" tomatoes sold in supermarkets are now hydroponic. Over 1/3 of the peppers and cucumbers are hydroponic. Many of the berries are hydroponic. The National Organic Program was created to protect organic integrity. Instead, it is becoming the handmaiden of corporate interests and allowing the organic seal to become a sham."

You can weigh in too. Here's how: The NOSB meets twice per year in a public forum to discuss the issues and vote on its final recommendations. The NOSB values transparency and public input, inviting both advance written and in-person oral public comments to gain additional perspectives on their recommendations. The comment period will close October 11, 2017. Please note: In order to be considered during the Fall 2017 meeting, written public comments or requests for oral comment speaking slots must be received by 11:59 p.m. October 11, 2017. Submit comments on the NOSB Subcommittees’ proposals via A detailed agenda will be available on or before September 12, and will be linked above. The deadline to submit written comments is 11:59 p.m. October 11, 2017. You can also register to provide oral comments. The instructions to do so are HERE.

September 1, 2017