Organic Policy and Regulations, What is Organic

NOSB Fails to Prohibit Hydroponic and Container Growing in Organic Standards

The NOSB meeting opened with the standard introductions and agency updates. There was a palpable tension as the soil and the soilless camps huddled in separate groups outside. The topic looming large and passionately at this meeting is whether to prohibit various modes of growing outside the soil—organic hydroponics.

The NOSB members have an amazing workload. Even before the meeting, they had already poured over 2000 written comments. A full 13.5 hours will be dedicated to listening to oral comments. It’s an arduous and transparent process. This is what makes Organic the gold standard.

Miles McEvoy, the National Organic Program’s (NOP) long-standing Deputy Administrator who recently retired was conspicuously and for the first time in many years absent. Acting Deputy Administrator Ruihong Guo, Ph.D. will fill his role until a replacement is hired.

Despite the fact that there are 35 materials up for sunset at this meeting, the overwhelming amount of oral comments addressed the hydroponics issues.

While we have common ground on things such as GMO exclusion, there are many cracks in the organic mosaic—the public comments reflected the divisions. A good majority of all the commenters at this meeting were in support of prohibiting hydroponic production methods. Many were led by organic veterans who were part of the very formation of the organic standards.

Several past NOSB members weighed in that organic is all about soil. “Conventional farmers are beginning to talk about soil health and now organic is talking about growing without the soil.” The arguments were many and fervent from a variety of stakeholders.

“We are tricking and deceiving consumers with organic hydroponics, and large corporations are just chasing and riding the coattails of the organic label. Hydroponic is a shortcut, and these methods have been wrongly certified. Container and hydroponics don’t have to wait 3 years to be certified. Global warming can be combated with the ground beneath my feet, not hydroponics. It’s just downright harmful to the organic seal!”

The Keep The Soil In Organic members wore black T-shirts stating such and presented a petition where 86,000 citizens had signed “no to hydroponics in organic.” What we do to the earth, we do to ourselves and the current hydroponic situation deceives consumers. They marched in protest down the street during the lunch hour.

More radical voices demanded that “this meeting is your chance to stop the corruption of organic by the USDA/NOP.”

A member representing IFOAM traveled 20 hours from the EU to give a 3-minute comment to rally against soilless organic production. She suggested their inclusion could encourage IFOAM to urge renegotiation of the equivalency agreement between the EU and US.

There were fewer proponents in attendance that wanted to continue to allow the full spectrum of hydroponic and container methods in organic. Their arguments were equally impassioned.

“The inclusion of hydroponic methods creates environmental stewardship while providing organic food to more organic customers. Hydroponic growers are champions of innovations and produce clean food in a sustainable way. We use no pesticides, herbicides, and foster biodiversity in their local area. Many of these systems use substantially less water.”

The vast majority of container growers would not be able to meet the limits of the nitrogen feeding requirements in the crops subcommittee proposal. If enforced, these requirements would halt progress and productivity and could create excess nitrogen run-off as a result.

“Soil growers are not required to control their phosphorous and nitrogen inputs, and this would create a double standard. The case was made that the carbon footprint is actually less because the food is usually consumed locally where it is produced.”

“What about organic seafood and fish? They have nothing to do with soil. Will those be excluded from the organic seal?”

“If prohibited, hundreds of hydroponic growers across the spectrum of growing methods could face economic devastation. These are long-time urban and rural producers, small and large scale producers currently certified that will suffer.”

There were a few calls of compromise and middle ground.

We heard from a 45-year grower of organic wine grapes, one of the groundbreaking pioneers in organic agriculture. He told his story, how he built his soil over the years using kelp, trace minerals, compost, and cover crops. Yet he is willing and ready to accept innovation in the organic landscape. As long as people want to have an organic alternative, we should let them have it. Let’s expand organic to as many tables as we can.

CCOF developed a detailed proposal of standards for all types of soilless growing systems. They suggest that instead of focusing on inputs as the defining characteristics of various production systems, the NOSB should focus more on the outcomes. Minimum soil biology diversity should be applied to all container and hydroponic systems to ensure that soil biology remains an essential element of all organic systems. Selecting a one size fits all strategy will not work for all crops and commodities.

The division in opinions to prohibit or allow seems to fall within regional lines. For the most part, in the East where deep dark soil and plentiful water exist, soil is the soul of organic farmers. In the West where rocky, sandy terrain dominates within more arid conditions, other innovative forms of organic agriculture are embraced.

After two long days of comments the full board voted on all the proposals. By a divided margin of 8 to 7 they rejected the proposals to make hydroponic, aquaponic and container growing prohibited in organic production. They also rejected the proposal to create prescriptive nitrogen feeding requirements in container growing systems

They did, almost unanimously, vote to prohibit aeroponics in organic practices, but to my knowledge no one is certifying these types of growing methods.

Today the NOSB plans to further discuss ideas on labeling these out of soil production methods.

This vote will certainly not end the discussion. With the fundamental split reflected in the board vote and in the community, there is a clear sense that no one really won .

Let’s hope this deep-seated rift does not tear asunder our small and passionate organic trade and movement.

20 thoughts on “NOSB Fails to Prohibit Hydroponic and Container Growing in Organic Standards”

  1. Clearly a split decision. My question was is split across corporate organic vs farmer organics? If that’s the case shame on them.

  2. We (Vegus Juices) sprout organic seeds of broccoli and wheatgrass on hydroponic medium (water with added naturally sourced minerals). We do this because it ensures that our sprouts are free from disease and grow without mould – we add the minerals to ensure that the sprouts are as high in nutrients as possible. Then we juice these sprouts and preserve using HPP. We are a highly ethical company and have been helping people with cancer for 20 years. Sadly we are excluded from certain distributors because we are not allowed to certify our juices as organic, since the Irish government does not allow for organic certification of products grown in hydroponic media. If we were based 100 miles away in the UK, then we could be certified since our entire growing process is organic! You can see what we do here and decide for yourselves if the Irish Government is right in blocking producers like us from certifying what is genuinely organic product.

    1. How can we ever think that adding nutrients (are they synthetic or “organic” ) to water will produce a nutrient dense food like that from nurtured soil (a dynamic living system off of nutrient compounds and beneficial bacteria) that cannot be duplicated. How would one even know what to add to the water and how much of each compound to add? This is not “organic”. This is man manipulating nature – almost as bad a GMO … Good for Ireland !! Keep up the good work!

      1. Thank you for your comments Suzanne! I appreciate your perspective on the subject.


        From: Organic Matters Reply-To: Date: Thursday, November 9, 2017 at 9:29 AM To: Dropbox Subject: [Organic Matters] Comment: “NOSB Fails to Prohibit Hydroponic and Container Growing in Organic Standards”

  3. Hi Melody,

    I was glad to meet you in Jacksonville. I think you have given a fair description of the meeting. Of course I disagree with your and UNFI’s position on all this, but you have presented both sides.

    I would point out that the “45 year grower of organic wine grapes” was the President of CCOF, and he was the ONLY soil grower at the meeting to defend the inclusion of hydro in organic. There were over 40 speaking against it. I think the reason that California soil farmers weren’t present is that it is a very long trip. The only people who made it from California definitely had a horse in the race. But California has many commited advocates for Organic in the ground. This Fall there were two Rallies to Keep The Soil In The Ground in California. One was at Full Belly’s Hoes Down, and one was in Ojai at Steve Sprinkle’s place.

    I would also disagree that ours are “more radical voices.” I continue to think of myself as a conservative on these issues. I guess that I might be called a radical, in the sense of “returning to the root.”

    I certainly agree that almost everybody lost at the meeting. But not the hydro producers. They did win, regardless of the terrible damage that it inflicted on the National Organic Program.

    1. Thank you Dave,

      I appreciate your thoughts and your point of view. You make several good points below.  I am truly sorry the outcome was such that no one felt good and we are a divided community.

      I would like to get more of your perspective and will reach out via email.

      From: Organic Matters Reply-To: Date: Saturday, November 4, 2017 at 3:58 AM To: Dropbox Subject: [Organic Matters] Comment: “NOSB Fails to Prohibit Hydroponic and Container Growing in Organic Standards”

  4. I as an Ecology Engenier think that ORGANIC should NOT be focused so much on the SALES end of the certification, but in acheiving SUSTAINABLE PRODUCTION; and hydroponics could be a tool to achieve just that… take for example a small farm that is doing egg and chicken meat production… what if they could use hydroponic fooder to reduce the amount of dry grain they feed to their chickens…. hydroponic fooder is a means to provide green forrage of controlled quality and it saves water, and saves natural vegetation space that would otherwise needed to be converted to crop fields…. THIS IS A MORE SUSTAINABLE PRACTICE… And if no pesticides, hormones are added… why would it not deserve the lavel of ORGANIC PRODUCE???

    1. Thank you for weighing in Jesus. I appreciate your perspective and focus on sustainability!

      From: Organic Matters Reply-To: Date: Wednesday, November 8, 2017 at 2:46 PM To: Dropbox Subject: [Organic Matters] Comment: “NOSB Fails to Prohibit Hydroponic and Container Growing in Organic Standards”

  5. Organic is organic! Not because people want the named “organic” products on their tables we have to do compromises. With all this derogations the organic is loosing its meaning and identity and becomes just a simple mark or different trade name!

    1. Thank you, I appreciate your passion on the matter.

      From: Organic Matters Reply-To: Date: Friday, November 10, 2017 at 1:16 AM To: Dropbox Subject: [Organic Matters] Comment: “NOSB Fails to Prohibit Hydroponic and Container Growing in Organic Standards”

  6. This discussion looks valid! Hydroponic crops cannot be organic as it is soilless farming. No matter how much profit it gives to farmers but the quality is not matched. I also prefer organic farming.

    1. Thank you Lucy for your comments and for reading my blog!

      From: Organic Matters Reply-To: Date: Thursday, November 30, 2017 at 10:25 PM To: Dropbox Subject: [Organic Matters] Comment: “NOSB Fails to Prohibit Hydroponic and Container Growing in Organic Standards”

  7. If a poultry grower has a pond in his farm, and because it’s available and a good enough feed item…. he decides to feed his chickens the “duck weed” that grows there as a way to feed them greens…. woudn’t that be an Organic Practice then???? Where is the soil there????

    Acuaponic systems are a replication of natural environments….. Water is recycled following the same mechanisms as in nature, nutrients flow from one organism (fish) to the other (plants)… – Shouldn’t those be labeld as ORGANIC then?

    Plants in nature may grow in soiles conditions… replicating that should not be a limitation to be labeled ORGANIC.

    To my way of seeing it, ORGANIC should be considered in terms of FREE FROM MAN MADE fertilizers and pesticides,

    Becasue creating a NEW sub Category that deals with the SUSTENTABILITY of the production would be complicating thins more than they already are…. And may end doing more Harm than Good.

  8. Share this: On the contrary we need a break away from the Corporate Organic Standards that have produced a BRAND. We need to go back to our roots …so my response to this comment (ALTHOUGH WELL INTENDED).. “Let’s hope this deep-seated rift does not tear asunder our small and passionate organic trade and movement.” is – YES INDEED we do need a parting of the waves … we need a new “real natural organic movement” that does not “pretend” to produce organic food by adding “nutrients” (I am sure some will be synthetic) to water and claiming it is organic so that some CAN MAKE MORE MONEY AND GROW AN INDUSTRY – “ORGANIC” IS ABOUT respecting and supporting nature for OUR HEALTH AND THE HEALTH OF THE PLANET – NOT ABOUT MAKING MONEY AND GROWING AN INDUSTRY BRAND. In some ways it is unfortunate that the organic movement has done so well – when SOME see money being made they become attentive and will do anything they need to to get in on the action. I feel for true Organic Farmers who have worked all their lives to build a credible industry that they can be proud of and also make a living. … This is a sad day.

  9. Thank you for giving us the background on this issue, and I appreciate how difficult it must be to come to any agreement on this fundamental issue. I can also appreciate the different experience of the eastern vs western farmers. Western farmers have been more challenged with lack of resources and have had to be more creative. Especially in Southern California, most of our irrigation water comes from far away, and so people turn to hydroponics to be more efficient. Given the geomorphology and slow development of soil, we are lacking here. Our climate and plant development are also different. In some areas it looks like we may not even have any winter this year. I am a soil based farmer, and cannot see myself more than experimenting with hydroponics. Yet I appreciate the efficiency of the systems and how they can be controlled to provide management of nutrients and waste, and a quality product. I have been working to promote the soil biology here and realize that it may be very difficult to provide enough food given the challenges we face. Key among them is lack of that precious resource, water. We also grow some of our crops partially in containers to protect them from rodents. Big problem here. The artificial nature of agriculture is also a part of our challenge, given that our food systems are dominated by mono-culture. Even as I transition to less thirsty crops I struggle to design different strategies and am looking to food forests and “guilds”, I am grateful for this discussion, because I am learning from it, and I am hoping that we can continue to learn from each other. Lets do the research on different practices, what are the challenges, take each one and carefully analyze it. Maybe hydroponics does not fit our definition of “organic”, maybe it does. I am not sure we are approaching this discussion with data, it seems more emotional. Can hydroponic production be a part of the solution to the challenges we face? It seems like it may be a regional issue. Get the data about what it is that makes nutritious food. We have so much knowledge now about the microbial interactions that are going on that actually promote growth, lets get down to that level, maybe we will find some answers there.

    1. Although I understand and “feel” for farmers and the challenges facing them today it is not “emotional” to comment that the nutrients added to water can not replace the nutrients developed in nurtured organic soil. Can you 100% duplicate the dynamic comprehensive nutrient profile of well developed organic soil as this in great part determines the nutrient level of the food. Where are these “added nutrients” coming from – who is making them?? What is the formula added to the water? Where are those formulas made? Who tests them? What are the beneficial bacteria levels? What trace nutrients are present (macro and micro, enzymes, bacteria, fungi and so on …) Sprouts are one thing (immature plants) but growing ground crops in water and calling them “certified organic” is a huge stretch – Could this be about “business” not nutrition (biochemistry and soil science)? When I consider the years of study, experimentation and dedication that has gone into developing the trusted brand “certified organic” my heart is heavy – yes that is emotional!! However, drawing attention to the “science” involved in the art of developing and nurturing organic soil to nourish mankind is not emotional. I am surprised the science was not more seriously explored, considered and defended. This is not about a bunch of organic geriatric hippies hanging on to out dated principals. . When money is involved perhaps it is too be expected that we will be tempted to live in denial. Create a new nutritional “brand” for “hydroponics” market it and be transparent as per the details of the nutrient formulas added to water and maintained. “Organic Food” needs to stay true to its mandate. Food grown in nutrient dense nurtured soil not just an absence of chemicals but a presence of essential nutrients and naturally occurring compounds,

      1. Hey Suzanne, not meaning to criticize, its pretty emotional for me every time i walk out into the grove. If anyone were going to be called a “hippie” it would be me (lol). I think most of us come from that same passion and it breaks our heart when we see something that doesn’t fit into our understanding of what we believe to be “True” to that passion. I agree there are issues with nutrients and the chemical formulations used in many of our systems. I would like to make sure there are real controls on them. At the same time, we need to work harder to recycle nutrients inexpensively so we can afford them, like yard waste and coffee grounds and food waste from restaurants. Its like the vitamins that we feed ourselves that are dead. I am wondering if we can’t at this point finally document the fundamental interactions between microbes that create that “magic” spark of life that we all strive to support. I’d love to see a conference with soil scientists laying it all out for us, that might make your points. Maybe you are on to a solution there, with creating a new brand, maybe “organic” needs to be more clearly defined and “hydroponic” applications cannot meet the requirements. Still would like to see more of a discussion, nature has many ecosystems that produce food that are not soil based, and we should be involved in managing these systems for our own food. Jose’s point about duckweed is a good example but I am also thinking about fermentation.

  10. The Coalition for Sustainable Organics (CSO) says it’s heartened by the initial response of the Department of Justice to defend organic growers’ rights to incorporate appropriate and legitimate growing techniques in their organic operations. The CSO opposes the efforts of the Center for Food Safety and a handful of growers to limit the availability of fresh organic fruits, vegetables, herbs and mushrooms.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.