By Mindy Hermann
The much anticipated National Organics Standard Board (NOSB) discussion on organic certification of aeroponics, aquaponics, hydroponics, and container systems, held April 20 and 21, 2017, included both committee comments and public testimony. However, no proposals were put forth at the meeting as subcommittee members recognized lack of clarity on definitions, along with other concerns.
The next steps for the NOSB Crops Subcommittee include further clarification of terms and a proposal for a vote as early as this fall on separate definitions of aeroponics, aquaponics, and hydroponics and on whether each is allowed under organic rules.
Discussions and comments generally fell into a handful of categories, as described below.
Definitions and standards
The discussion document produced by the Crops Subcommittee last fall suggested that hydroponics be defined as “the production of normally terrestrial, vascular plants in nutrient-rich solutions, or in a medium of inert or biologically recalcitrant solid materials to which a nutrient solution is added.” Furthermore, the NOSB did pass the following statement last fall in a resolution to prohibit organic certification of hydroponic systems that use an entirely water-based substrate and no soil.
At this year’s spring meeting, subcommittee members and public representatives highlighted their lack of full understanding of hydroponics, along with the need for additional consideration of better defined standards, including the maximum percentage of fertility that can come from liquid nutrients. Some also suggested a more clear definition of container standards before making any decisions on organic certification for container-grown crops.
Proponents of organic farming continue to define organic as soil-centric. The original Organic Foods Production Act of 1990 requires the fostering of soil fertility. Several of those in attendance called for adoption of the EU definition of organic as grown in soil in the ground, or the Canadian standard that defines minimum soil volumes in an organic system and also limits liquid nutrients. Speakers opposed to certifying container systems in particular as organic called for a comparison of complexity between conventional organic and container soils, with the expectation that organic soil would be more fertile.
The question persisted as to whether organic should be defined by soil or inputs, both of which are covered in current legislation. Proponents of a soil-based definition pointed out that organic should encompass whole systems – environment, agriculture, and food quality – rather than fertility and substitution of approved inputs for those not approved. They also called for threshold percentages of total fertility from liquid fertilizers and disclosure of sources of liquid fertility for traceability.
Participants considered the economic and other impacts of a decision, noting that the USDA National Organic Program (NOP) requests justification of any regulation that could affect economic factors.
Arguments in support of organic certification of hydroponics included the need for new technologies to feed a growing world population and the ability of ‘ponics to address shortages of organic produce in the marketplace.
Opponents of organic certification for ‘ponics noted that while they recognize the value of ‘ponics, such systems should not be classified as organic. Others suggested that ‘ponics items carry an alternate label for their own product-verified system, such as “hydroponic, made with organically approved inputs.” Concerns were expressed, however, about causing future label confusion among consumers. Some participants expressed a desire to label hydroponics under the organic umbrella and let the consumer decide.
Perspectives on the NOSB meeting
Tom Beddard, owner and founder of Lady Moon Farms, has been a certified grower since 1988 and describes himself as a “huge soil advocate.” He noted that “hydroponic farming and to be clear, container growing is hydroponic farming is missing the most essential ingredient there is to organic farming, soil, and you can't have organic farming without soil. Organic farming is not about allowable inputs, it's about feeding the soil not the plant, hydroponics/container growing is the opposite of this.”
On the other side, Lee Frankel, executive director, Coalition for Sustainable Organics, said “I am pleased that the members of the National Organic Standards Board were actively engaged with the public during the public testimony period. It appears to me that they understand the ramifications of revoking certification for organic production systems that have been certified for over 15 years by changing existing USDA policy. The Coalition and its members look forward to assisting the Board with the data and research that we hope will ultimately guide them to create a clear and consistently enforced policy for all organic growers."