Lee Frankel is executive director of the Coalition for Sustainable Organics (CSO), an organization with 37 grower members that advocates for the use of hydroponic and container production systems in organic agriculture. Frankel joined OPN for a conversation about why he and the CSO believe hydroponics should continue to be eligible for organic certification, the US District Court for Northern California’s recent ruling on this issue, and more.
*Note: For the purposes of this article, hydroponics includes anything that isn't grown in soil in the ground.
Can you tell us about your background in agriculture?
After college, I worked for the federal government at the US International Trade Commission as a fruit and vegetable analyst. From there, I worked for 12 years as the president of the Fresh Produce Association of the Americas. I've also worked for a national potato growers cooperative as well as for growers and shippers of fresh produce (both organic and conventional) throughout the US, Mexico, and Canada.
Lee Frankel, Executive Director, Coalition for Sustainable Organics (CSO)
How did you get involved in the issue of organic hydroponic growing?
In 2014, I went to work for Wholesum Harvest to set up protocols in cooperation with the USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) and its counterpart in Mexico (SENASICA) to be able to use organically produced hydroponic tomato plantlets grown just south of the border in Mexico in US greenhouse facilities. Soon after, efforts to revoke organic certification for growers using hydroponic and container production systems started to come back up in the organic community. So Wholesum and I reached out to other organic growers who shared the same concern that this proposed revocation of their certification was an existential threat to their business and their ability to continue to serve consumers.
The issue really heated up when a major certifier threatened to decertify its existing hydroponic farmers, and that is what led to the creation of the Coalition for Sustainable Organics (CSO). Given my regulatory and trade association experience, I was suggesting many of the initial strategies for the Coalition on how to approach the issue and educate the organic community. That work and my passion on the issue led the other members of CSO to request that I leave Wholesum Harvest to work for the Coalition. I became the executive director of CSO about five years ago.
Why do you and the CSO believe that hydroponics should be allowed to be able to be certified organic?
We want to make sure that everyone who wants organic produce can have it. And we believe that using organic hydroponic growing methods is sustainable, legitimate, and sensible.
To get into a little bit more detail on each of those points, we believe organic hydroponic growing is sustainable because CSO member growers are taking the crop waste from the previous cycle of animal and plant production (like fish meal and compost) and recycling it to provide the nutrients for the next cycle—and at the same time they’re doing that, they’re using up to 90-percent less water and up to 90-percent less land to grow the food compared to in-ground production. The reduced footprint of hydroponic and container systems helps free up space to either grow more food or to preserve natural habitats.
"We believe that using organic hydroponic growing methods is sustainable, legitimate, and sensible." -Lee Frankel
We believe organic hydroponic growing is legitimate since this is an issue that's been debated since the beginning of the National Organic Program (NOP), and the methods predate the advent of modern conventional agriculture going back to the hanging gardens of Babylon and the floating Aztec gardens in Mexico. There are notes from the 1995 meetings of the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) that include discussion of draft standards for greenhouse and hydroponic production systems five years prior to the NOP establishing the first set of regulations. Since its inception in 2000, the NOP has always allowed hydroponic operations to be eligible for certification, and just recently the US District Court for Northern California upheld this.
Pest sweep of organic tomatoes
And then we believe organic hydroponic growing is sensible when you look at consumer motivation for purchases. Consumers are looking to avoid foods with synthetic pesticides and fertilizers, and affordability is also a major issue for a number of people. Organic hydroponics add to the diversity of production, which helps increase supply and keep organic produce accessible and affordable for more consumers.
How do you counter your opponents’ argument that by definition organic involves soil?
If you look at the organic movement in the US, it's based upon two pillars. One was based on Rachel Carson's Silent Spring, which talks about the importance of using natural substances to avoid upsetting ecosystems and minimize our exposure to synthetic pesticides. And the other pillar—where I believe more of the confusion comes from—goes back to Sir Howard and Lady Balfour who said that to have a healthy soil, it’s important to recycle the leftover nutrients from the previous food production cycle to feed and sustain biology.
"Organic hydroponics add to the diversity of production, which helps increase supply and keep organic produce accessible and affordable for more consumers." -Lee Frankel
I would argue that those pioneers were focused on the primacy of highly biologically active systems that cycle nutrients rather than the media where that biology lives. For those opposed to hydroponic growing in the organic movement, my impression is that they're saying that it isn't about those biological processes, and it isn't about cycling of nutrients from one crop to the next, but it's about just the dirt itself.
For myself and for the members of the CSO, we see the importance of the cycling of nutrients in highly active biological systems as the true key. CSO member growers are constantly recycling by finding a new use for the waste of previous crops. For example, they’re taking the leaves pruned from tomato plants and composting them so that all the rich nitrogen and nutrients that are there are being put back again into that next crop cycle.
What are your thoughts on the recent ruling by the US District Court for Northern California, which upheld that hydroponics can qualify as organic under the NOP?
The top line is it reaffirmed the legitimacy of USDA decisions that have said there is a place for hydroponic growing methods to be incorporated into organic operations. This recent judge’s ruling says you have to look at the organic regulations as a whole to see that they're open and inviting rather than restrictive. Where they are meant to be limiting, the regulations specifically prohibit substances and practices (and hydroponics are not specifically prohibited).
"For myself and for the members of the CSO, we see the importance of the cycling of nutrients in highly active biological systems as the true key." -Lee Frankel
So the judge is staying in agreement with USDA that the NOP is open to hydroponic growers who are cycling resources, promoting ecological balance, conserving biodiversity, and following the pesticide and material usage rules.
What are the CSO’s hopes and plans for the future related to hydroponics in organic agriculture?
The CSO will continue to educate the organic community and relevant government authorities on the legitimacy, sustainability, and sensibility of certification for organic growers who use hydroponic growing methods on their farms. We will be ready to provide timely and accurate information on these growers’ biologically active organic production systems if and when certifiers and/or the NOP evolve their guidance on audits and organic systems plans. We hope that the judge’s affirmation of the policies established by Congress and the USDA will encourage new investment and research into even more efficient production models for organic growers incorporating hydroponics in their operations.
*To read the counterpoint interview with the Center for Food Safety's Sylvia Wu, click here.