By Mindy Hermann
The future of organic certification for hydroponic, aquaponic, aeroponic, and other non-soil crops is likely to be decided next week at the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) spring meeting, to be held April 19-21 in Denver. Among the agenda items is a discussion led by the Crops Subcommittee (CS) on whether produce grown in a bioponic setting, as well as in containers in greenhouses, meets definitions for organic certification. Vocal advocates on both sides present cogent arguments; the USDA received 2,000+ comments during its comment period, with more nays than yays.
The Cornucopia Institute leads the charge against certification
The Cornucopia Institute, a Wisconsin-based advocate for economic justice for family scale farming, supports the clear definitions contained in CS discussion document that prohibit hydroponics, aquaponics, aeroponics, from classification as organic. These follow the European standard requiring organic crops to be grown in soil in the ground, with the exception of sprouts, aquatic plants in native ecosystems, and transplants in their containers. Cornucopia argues that soilless systems, while “not necessarily bad,” are not organic because they are removed from regenerative soil fertility practices.
Cornucopia’s rationale for its position notes that the NOSB lacks the authority to modify the Organic Foods Production Act: soil-based production is integral to organic production; organic production is about more than just using approved inputs; hydroponic and container practices are not sustainable; and certifying bioponics and container-grown products as organic goes against international standards. Its staff also advocates for the small organic farmer over corporate farming.
“When the USDA says an "organic" hydroponic tomato is the same as a soil grown organic tomato, but the soil grown tomato costs twice as much to produce, market forces will cause real organic farms to disappear,” says Linley Dixon, Ph.D., farm and food policy analyst, The Cornucopia Institute.
Comments received by the USDA against organic certification outweigh those in favor and express pro-soil and traditional organic sentiments:
“Our food supply has been adulterated by the constant deregulation of organics. Organic means grown in soil no matter how you try to spin it.”
“Please do not include hydroponic production in the USDA Organic Standards. Dripping chemicals, even organic ones, onto roots clinging to inert rocks is contrary to the spirit of the organic standards and the Organic Movement.”
“I support The Cornucopia Institute's comprehensive comments to protect the interest of family-scale farmers and consumers who want authentic organic food, grown in soil.”
“The label organic should only be used to mean one thing – the food labeled organic came from organic methods of soil use.”
Cogent rationale supports certification for bioponics and containers
Growers in the Coalition for Sustainable Organics advocate for the continued allowance of containerized growing methods under the National Organic Program (NOP), enabling them to select the most appropriate production system for their specific site and commodity needs. The Coalition describes organic containerized growing as a natural cultivation method that uses recyclable and compostable growing media, requires fewer resources per pound of produce, increases production per square foot, and meets the same standards as soil-grown organic crops. Furthermore, it points out that restricting organic certification of bioponics and container crops will limit availability of organic fruits and vegetables and raise prices.
“We believe 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. “Organics should continue to allow growers adapt to their site-specific conditions within the parameters of avoiding the use of GMOs, synthetic pesticides and fertilizers while creating active biological systems to nourish the plants.”
Containerized and hydroponic/aquaponics/aeroponic food crops address many of today’s agricultural challenges. They lend themselves to urban and other settings that lack arable land. Growing methods significantly reduce environmental pollution from soil erosion and nutrient runoff. Container and ‘ponic crop cultivation is less vulnerable to climate change.
Year-round growth can mean year-round employment for farm personnel. “Labor and other inefficiencies – soil, acreage, inputs, waste – are what inspired our company to switch from soil to hydroponic,” says Nick Sullivan, research and development engineer, North Shore Greenhouses, Inc., Thermal, CA. He explains that using a controlled environment for containers enables North Shore to retain the same employees year-round, which is less stressful for our workers and for the company.
A comment to the USDA in favor of organic certification summarizes the key benefits:
“I work in a greenhouse that produces certified organic fresh produce. I was taught that organics meant a respect for the environment and freedom from synthetic chemicals for consumers as well as those like myself that work with plants every day. I am proud that the container organic production systems on our farm help preserve natural open space for the many wild animals that live in our region. In addition, I am grateful that my fellow coworkers and I have steady year-round employment and are not exposed to synthetic pesticides to help protect our health.”
The NOSB discussion document will be presented, along with comments to the USDA, on Thursday, April 20.