Petition to Bar Hydroponic Operations from Organic Certification

January 29, 2019By Riëtte van Laack

The question of whether hydroponic operations are eligible for organic certification in the United States has been debated since 1995.  In most countries, such as Mexico and Canada, and regions, such as the EU, organic certification cannot be extended to crops not grown in soil.  However, in the United States, the USDA Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) has historically taken the position that such operations are eligible for certification as long as they comply with the National Organic Program (NOP) regulations.  Now, organic hydroponic agriculture is facing a new challenge.

Between 2001 and 2010, the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) Crops Committee repeatedly reevaluated the issue of “soil-less” growing systems, such as hydroponic systems.  In 2010, the NOSB once again assessed “soil-less” systems and concluded that they were inconsistent with organic status.  The NOSB recommended (by a vote of 12-1) that AMS issue a regulation specifying that hydroponic operations and hydroponically produced/grown products are not eligible for organic certification even if they use only substances permitted in organic production.  After further comments and questions by various parties, in May of 2014, AMS stated unequivocally that Organic hydroponic production is allowed.”  Hydroponic operations continued to be eligible for organic certification.

In 2015, AMS established a Hydroponic/Aquaponic Task Force to further explore the 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.  By the fall meeting of 2017, by a vote of 8-7, the NOSB rejected a proposal (by the committee) to prohibit organic certification for hydroponic operations.  Subsequently, in a Jan. 25, 2018 notice, AMS (again) acknowledged the extensive debate over hydroponic, aquaponic, and aeroponic operations since the fall 2017 meeting of the NOSB, but noted that since the origins of the NOP , hydroponic operations had been eligible for certification.  AMS declared that such operations would continue to be eligible for certification unless and until AMS issues final regulations to the contrary.

Now, a coalition of opponents against organic hydroponics is trying to get AMS to issue such regulations, banning hydroponic operations from organic certification.  On January 16, 2019, the Center for Food Safety (CFS, endorsed by The Cornucopia Institute, Food & Water Watch, Cultivate Oregon, Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association, Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners, Association Certification Service, Northwest Organic Dairy Producers Alliance, Organic Farmers Association and several others) submitted a Petition to AMS requesting that AMS issue regulations excluding hydroponic agricultural production from organic certification, consistent with the 2010 NOSB recommendation and report.  Specifically, CFS asks AMS to amend 7 CFR § 205.105 to prohibit hydroponic systems and to revoke organic certification for currently certified hydroponic operations.

CFS points to legislative history, the statute and the regulations to support its Petition.  It also references inconsistency among organic certifiers.  Some certifying agents do not certify hydroponic operations whereas others do (According to CFS, there are currently 41 USDA certified organic hydroponic operations).  CFS also points to the prohibition of organic certification of hydroponic operations in other countries.