Hydroponically grown vegetables and berries are increasing in popularity. But is hydroponics a healthy, sustainable — and organic — way to grow food? Section 7 CFR 205.2051,2 of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's (USDA) organic regulations require that your crop rotation plan maintains or improves soil organic matter. Since hydroponics does not involve the use of soil, it does not qualify for organic certification.
Despite such clear-cut distinctions in the law, the Organic Trade Association and the hydroponic lobby, led by the Coalition for Sustainable Organics, are pushing to rewrite organic rules to include hydroponics. They're also seeking to reform the National Organic Program (NOP), reduce the influence of the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) and alter the composition of the NOSB to "improve trade representation."
Don't be fooled by the name. The Coalition for Sustainable Organics worked against the organic industry by supporting Senate Agriculture Committee chairman Pat Roberts' bill (a version of the so-called DARK Act) to pre-empt states' rights to label GMOs and require the USDA to provide consumers with information describing the benefits of biotechnology.
They got their way, and the American people got voluntary "smart labels" in lieu of GMO labeling. In return, Roberts has become a strong supporter of the Coalition.
Hostile Takeover by Corporate Organics
As noted by Dave Chapman of Long Wind Farm in an article discussing the Coalition for Sustainable Organics' Congressional testimony in June:3
"We are witnessing an attempted hostile takeover of the National Organic Program … The very fact that Congress was listening to a fringe group like the Coalition for guidance on organics is a clear sign that the organic community is in deep trouble …
Melody Meyer, a spokesperson for United Natural Foods and one of the leading hydro lobbyists, has described the hydro battle as a conflict between two parts of the organic community: The Trade and the Movement. This is not an accurate description because the Coalition for Sustainable [Organics] has never been a part of the organic community …
There has been talk of creating a new label within the USDA for "Certified Hydroponic Organic." I would suggest a better label: "USDA Certified Fauxganic." The new Fauxganic label could also include the CAFO dairies, the CAFO eggs, CAFO meat and the magically transformed conventional grain that has flooded the organic market in recent years. At last, there will be a proper label to clarify so much of what is currently confusing and dismaying the eaters of America.
Fauxganic producers can be recognized by their common belief that healthy soil is irrelevant … [Coalition for Sustainable Organics] spokesperson Theo Crisantes ... claimed there was too much public debate. Decisions need to be made behind closed doors by a few power brokers. It was perfect symbolism that his first Congressional testimony to a House subcommittee was also behind closed doors."
Can Hydroponics Be Organic?
As mentioned, hydroponics does not qualify for the organic designation for the simple fact that organics must improve soil quality, and hydroponics grow plants in a liquid medium without soil. Yet hydroponic operators have been certified organic by USDA accredited certification agencies,4,5,6 and the hydroponics industry wants the organic certification to be open game to the industry at large.
But there's yet another problem. Hydroponics also use chemicals, which organic producers are barred from using. Worse, commercial hydroponic growers will rarely reveal the fertilizers they use. According to Chapman:
"When I served on the USDA Hydroponic Task Force, we were unable to get a single hydroponic member of the task force to share exactly what they used to fertilize their crop. We were told it was a secret.
These are efficiently run organizations that do what they do well, but they have no business selling their products as organic unless they are willing to profoundly change how they farm. And so far they are not willing to do that. They are only interested in using the USDA label for the price premium."