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My Message to the Secretary

On May 17, 2021, I, along with 5 other former NOSB members, met via Zoom with USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack. We were invited to meet with the Secretary, following a letter we sent to him, signed by 43 former NOSB members, where we expressed concerns about the National Organic Program.

My message to Sec. Vilsack was clear and simple – organic certification of soilless, hydroponic production violates the Organic Foods Production Act; conflicts with the USDA’s organic research agenda; is inconsistent with the standards of our trading partners; undermines consumer confidence in the “USDA Organic” brand; and undercuts markets for America’s organic farmers.

Here’s what I told Sec. Vilsack during our meeting:

“Thank you for meeting with us. My wife and I own Blue Fruit Farm, growing certified organic blueberries and other perennial fruits in SE MN. Our customers consistently tell us that our blueberries are the best tasting berries they have ever had, including berries labeled “USDA Organic.”

I tell them that many of those berries are now grown hydroponically, and have no flavor because they aren’t grown in living soil. They are grown in plastic containers filled with coconut coir, on leveled, dead land covered with black plastic, and fed a solution of highly soluable nutrients. They may look like blueberries, but they sure don’t have much flavor, and they shouldn’t be labeled “organic!”

USDA allowance of hydroponic “organic” harms real organic farmers, and defrauds consumers who think they are buying products grown in healthy soil. Plus, organic certification of such systems is not allowed by our trading partners. However, huge industrial operations in foreign countries are certified by USDA to sell their hydroponic crops as “organic” in the US, undercutting American organic farmers.

These operations, located in Europe, Canada, Mexico, and elsewhere, are able to sell their crops as “organic” in the United States, even though they cannot sell them as “organic” in their own countries. This is causing real harm to America’s organic farmers.

OFPA requires that all organic farms complete an organic plan. OFPA states, “An organic plan shall contain provisions designed to foster soil fertility, primarily through the management of the organic content of the soil through proper tillage, crop rotation, and manuring.” That’s the very first requirement for an organic farm plan, and note that it uses the word, “shall.”

Hydroponic systems don’t comply with that requirement, and they do nothing to build soil health, sequester carbon, or “promote ecological balance and conserve biodiversity,” as required under the NOP definition of “organic production.”

The NOSB has never supported organic certification of hydroponic, and has consistently voted to prohibit the practice. USDA has not issued any rules, standards, or guidance for such systems.

Mr. Secretary, you have a chance to end the systemic fraud that blossomed under the previous administration by phasing out organic certification of soilless, hydroponic operations. In doing so, you will protect consumers, support organic farmers, align with our trading partners, advance USDA’s organic research agenda, and promote organic production systems essential for ecological protection and climate change mitigation.”

To our surprise, Sec. Vilsack responded that the USDA has not decided what to do about hydroponic “organic,” one way or the other. So I have followed up by offering a suggestion to resolve the issue, which continues to divide and diminish the organic community.

To resolve the issue, USDA does not need to engage in new rule making or involve Congress or the Office of Management and Budget. USDA simply needs to inform all USDA-accredited certification agencies that they have one year to bring all operations into compliance with the soil-building requirements stated in OFPA. Operations which cannot come into compliance, and those which choose not to, will need to leave the program and discontinue use of the “USDA Organic” logo and other organic claims.

In the meantime, USDA should offer to host the development of a label for hydroponic operations that use green practices and least-toxic inputs. In doing so, USDA will provide operations, which now make “organic” claims, a way to distinguish themselves in the marketplace with some kind of “Clean and Green,” “Hydro-Green,” “Hydroganic,” or other eco label.

Secretary Vilsack has a unique opportunity to preserve and protect the values represented by the “organic” brand, while simultaneously allowing hydroponic operations a way to establish standards and develop a uniform label claim for their products. Doing nothing is not an option.