Bioponics: Is the End Near for Organic Labeling?


By Mindy Hermann

The proliferation of bioponics, including hydroponics, aquaponics, aeroponics, and container growing systems, has dramatically changed the landscape of the produce department. Traditionally seasonal spring and summer vegetables such as cucumbers, peppers, tomatoes, eggplant and zucchini now are available throughout the winter, thanks in good measure to bioponic cultivation in indoor environments.

Bioponics offers additional benefits beyond meeting consumer needs. Compared to soil-based farming, bioponic growing methods require less water and land, optimize inputs for higher yields, conserve soil, are sustainable, and help preserve resources for future generations. Bioponic cultivation can flourish on organically certified materials, incorporate similar microbial action to that of soil crops, require less use of pesticides, and minimize or eliminate nutrient runoff. A viable solution to environmental challenges, bioponics helps address such conditions as drought, limited access to land, and adverse growing conditions. Aquaponics expands food production by cultivating both protein and plants for consumption. Containerized growing can reduce water usage by up to 90 percent per pound of fresh produce and allow farmers to grow up to 10 times more organic produce per square foot per year than open field systems, according to the Coalition for Sustainable Organics.

Ocean Mist

Although bioponically-grown fruits and vegetables currently may be considered organic if they adhere to the organic regulations defined by the USDA’s National Organic Program (NOP), they soon could lose their organic certification. Discussion at the upcoming USDA National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) spring meeting is on track to conclude that aeroponic, aquaponic, and hydroponic crops do not meet organic definitions and therefore cannot carry organic certification.  

National Organics Standards Board and National Organic Program grapple with definitions

Organic certification for bioponics continues to be a stumbling block for the NOP and NOSB, as it has been since the early 2000s. The NOSB has consistently advocated for organic greenhouse standards, including exclusion of bioponics because its systems do not use soil. The framework of organic farming is based on soil management; therefore, the NOSB concluded that growing methods that eliminate soil from the system, such as hydroponics, cannot be considered as acceptable organic farming practices. 

Wholesum Family Farms

NOP has not acted on many NOSB recommendations regarding bioponics, even countering in 2014 that hydroponics could be certified organic. By 2016, NOP still had not taken action on NOSB’s recommendations, instead raising questions relating to hydroponic production:

  • How does hydroponics differ from production in containers?
  • If soil ecology is the basis for not allowing hydroponics, how is soil ecology defined?
  • If hydroponic systems are not allowed to be considered organic, but container systems are, how does one determine the line between hydroponic production and container-grown crops?
  • If hydroponic systems are allowed to be considered organic, how can they integrate cultural, biological, and mechanical practices that foster cycling of resources, promote ecological balance, and conserve bio-diversity?
  • What are the key measurable and enforceable standards for organic hydroponic systems?
  • How should products be labeled?

Proposal for discussion calls for the end of organic certification for hydroponics and aquaponics

In advance of the National Organics Standards Board (NOSB) spring meeting, to be held April 19-21, the Crops Subcommittee shared a draft proposal for discussion that calls for the end of organic certification for hydroponic and aquaponic growers. At the meeting, the subcommittees of the Hydroponic and Aquaponic Task Force plan to summarize how “organic” hydroponic practices align or do not align with the Organic Foods Production Act (OFPA) and USDA organic regulations, discuss alternate labeling for bioponics, and clarify and support NOSB’s 2010 recommendations to disallow bioponics. Although the Task Force acknowledges the numerous benefits of hydroponics and aquaponics in particular, it affirms its belief that soil management is at the heart of organic production.  It cites the lack of greenhouse standards for creating confusion and inconsistency about certification of greenhouse operations that grow crops in containers.

Organic Produce Network (OPN)

The Task Force suggests the following:

  • Limit organic certification to what is grown in the ground, with the exceptions of transplants, ornamental, and herbs. This is the common standard used in most European organic certification and is supported by the majority of the subcommittee.
  • Add language that aeroponics, hydroponics, and aquaponics are not organic and prohibit from certification bioponic systems that exclusively use a water-based substrate.
  • Require additional standards regarding containers to include practices that are not covered by existing regulations.
    • Ensure that container-grown plants get most of their fertility from the natural processes of soil or compost-based media.
    • Limit the percentage of nutrition from additional fertilizers after planting.
    • Require that greenhouses have transparent roofs and walls.
    • Use electric lighting to supplement but not replace sun.
    • Require crop rotation and soil renewal with cover crops or compost in greenhouses to ensure soil biodiversity and health.

The Task Force concludes that regulation of organic agriculture is much more than a list of permitted and prohibited materials, noting that organic farming originally was meant to be a way of growing healthful crops as part of a system based on healthy soil. 

The unintended consequences of a change in standards

AweSum Organics

A change in standards will dramatically limit the amount of organic produce available to the public – just as the public is demanding more organic produce. Furthermore, the public does not necessarily associate organic with grown in soil so the removal of certification from produce packaging could lead to confusion.  Removing organic certification from popular hydroponic crops such as tomatoes and berries will severely limit availability, particularly outside of traditional growing months. “The Coalition for Sustainable Organics believes that everyone deserves organic and this proposal will make it harder for consumers to access organic produce,” states Lee Frankel, executive director for the Coalition.

Sources:

Organic Grower Summit
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