In a move that may further divide the organic industry, the USDA has gone against a recommendation from the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) and continued its prohibition of hydroponic and aquaponic production as a certifiable organic growing technique.
By a recent 8-7 vote, the NOSB recommended that hydroponic and aquaponic growing techniques should not be prohibited from the USDA’s National Organic Program.
However, the board, which advises the USDA regarding organic operations, said no to aeroponics, which is a method whereby plants are suspended above sprays of water and nutrients.
Fourteen board members voted against organic certification for aeroponics. One member of the board abstained from the aeroponics vote.
The most outspoken groups against hydroponics include the Cornucopia Institute and the Organic Consumers Association, who have steadfastly opposed certification of non-soil operations.
“Big money and powerful corporate lobbyists want their piece of the growing organic pie,” The Cornucopia Institute wrote before the meeting of the NOSB. “They are pushing for allowance of a hydroponics environment for producing your fruits and vegetables. This scheme is barred from organic certification in Canada, Mexico, and the European Union — yet they are shipping their hydroponic produce here, and the USDA is allowing them to label it organic!”
In 1995 the NOSB recommended that USDA-approved organic certifiers be allowed to license hydroponic operations, “if all provisions of the OFPA (Organic Foods Production Act) have been met.” Licensing has reportedly been inconsistent.
In Michigan, the debate and subsequent decision has a small impact, if any, on organic farmers, said Kevin Robson, horticulture specialist with Michigan Farm Bureau.
“At this point, the organic standards board is still trying to figure out hydroponics,” he said. “I think it would be a huge step forward for organic growers to be able to use hydroponic growing techniques, but there is a philosophy out there, promoted by the Cornucopia Institute, that the small-farm nature of organics is the only ‘right’ philosophy. Our organic growers continue to expand their businesses, and as they seek new niche markets, the ability to use hydroponics is a way to diversify. For such farmers, it’s more about the markets than the small-farm philosophy.”
Opponents of the push to include hydroponics in organic agriculture insist that organic farming’s foundation is clean soil.
There are media reports noting that certification for hydroponic and aquaponic operations could reduce overall organic output. However, operators of non-soil greenhouses say they can produce 8, 10 and 22 times more tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers, respectively, per acre than conventional field operations produce.
And while Robson said the inclusion of hydroponics in organic production would have opened the door for at least some organic operations into more year-round markets, Michigan Farm Bureau supports whatever the USDA ultimately decides.
“Farm Bureau policy supports all methods of agricultural production,” Robson said. “We also support efforts to enhance marketing opportunities to all producers who qualify for organic certification. Looks like hydroponic production will have to keep marketing their produce as conventional items rather than organic, at least for the time being.”