When it comes to organic food, it's buyer beware. Fake organics abound these days, be it organic eggs laid by hens cooped up in gigantic factory farms, organic beef and milk from cows raised under anything but humane, pastured conditions, or hydroponic vegetables grown under artificial lighting in conventional coconut waste or ground up plastic, fertilized with a liquid slurry of conventionally-grown (and hence pesticide-laden) processed soybeans.
Indeed, the U.S. Department of Agriculture's (USDA) organic label has become increasingly watered down over the years. With the inclusion of hydroponics in the organic standards, it's at risk of becoming altogether moot.
On one side of this fight you have family-scale, soil-based organic farmers whose focus is producing nutrient-dense food while simultaneously improving soil health. On the other you have corporate, industrial-scale hydroponic growers whose produce is actually lower in nutrients1 and does nothing to improve soil conditions on farms.
Organic Versus Hydroponic
According to section 7 CFR 205.2052,3 of USDA organic regulations, an organic grower's crop rotation plan must maintain or improve soil organic matter. The main legal argument against the inclusion of hydroponics in the USDA's organic standards is that since hydroponics do not involve the use of soil at all, it cannot qualify for organic certification in the first place.
Despite such clear-cut definitions of what constitutes organic farming, a large number of hydroponic operators were still quietly granted organic certification4,5,6 under the lead of Miles McEvoy, former deputy administrator of the USDA's National Organic Program (NOP).7In 2010, the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) had voted "no" on allowing hydroponics as the organic rules clearly did not support their inclusion.
McEvoy, who disagreed with the panel's decision, allowed hydroponic growers to apply for certification anyway. On November 1, the NOSB voted on whether these hydroponic growers would be allowed to remain part of the organic program, and despite passionate opposition by soil-based farmers and organic pioneers, the board chose to reverse their previous position, and not to stand in the way of granting organic certification to hydroponic growers.
The NOSB, now stacked with agribusiness-affiliated representatives, also decided to allow aquaponics, where fish and plants are raised together in a synergistic cycle, despite the fact that there are no organic standards for this type of production. However, the NOSB voted to bar aeroponics from organic certification. Aeroponics involves neither soil nor nutrient-rich water, relying on moist air to nourish the plants' roots instead. The fallout from this November 1 vote has been nothing if not dramatic.
Coauthor of Organic Standards Says Organic Certification of Hydroponics Is Illegal
Jim Riddle, steering committee chair of the Organic Farmers Association (OFA),8 who in the early '90s co-wrote the Organic Trade Association's organic standards, had this to say about hydroponics being allowed to be certified organic:
"The labeling of hydroponic products as 'organic' is illegal. The Organic Foods Production Act (OFPA), in section 6513(b)(1), states, 'An organic plan shall contain provisions to foster soil fertility…' Further, OFPA 6513(g) states, 'An organic plan shall not include any production or handling practices that are inconsistent with this chapter.' Soilless production systems are inconsistent with OFPA.
They do not comply with numerous sections of the NOP Final Rule, as enumerated in the Crops Subcommittee's recommendation. There is one relevant rule provision that the Committee overlooked. Section 205.601(j)(6) allows the use of micronutrients, with the following annotation, 'Soil deficiency must be documented by testing.'
This does not mean that micronutrients may be used if soil is deficient from the system. No, it links soil to the allowance for the use of micronutrients. The OFPA and rule sections mentioned above, and in the Committee's recommendation, use the words 'shall' and 'must,' not 'should' or 'may.' These are mandatory provisions, and they cannot be ignored.
In addition, soilless, hydroponic systems do not comply with the NOSB Principles of Organic Production and Handling, the first sentence of which reads, 'Organic agriculture is an ecological production management system that promotes and enhances biodiversity, biological cycles, and soil biological activity.'
In the wake of the NOSB's decision to certify hydroponics as organic, many organic pioneers have threatened to abandon USDA organic certification altogether. Another alternative brought forth by Mark Kastel, cofounder and codirector of the Cornucopia Institute,9 is to develop an alternative label to distinguish between soil- and nonsoil-based organics.