Kelly Damewood, policy director for California Certified Organic Farmers (CCOF), admits that the recent announcement about organic certification for hydroponics is confusing.
Damewood explains the basics of organic certification. “Organic is federally regulated under the USDA National Organic Program,” she said. “It has an advisory board — the National Organic Standards Board, or NOSB. They meet twice a year and advise the Secretary of the USDA on organic standards, including the allowance or prohibition of materials and on a range of issues.”
The NOSB includes volunteers appointed by the secretary of the USDA. The board includes farmers, processors, retailers and organic certifiers — a wide range of stakeholders that represent stakeholders in the organic community. CCOF works with thousands of organic producers throughout the United States, with the majority of membership based in California.
Regarding the recent 8 to 7 vote regarding organic certification of hydroponics, Damewood says, “The media has been reporting it as if the NOSB passed a recommendation to prohibit hydroponics,” said Damewood. “That’s not correct. The NOSB failed to pass a recommendation to prohibit hydroponics.”
Damewood explained that when the NOSB passes a recommendation, it doesn’t have the effect of law. It’s up to the USDA to issue a rule, followed by public comment, followed by a final rule. “There’s a range of factors such as legal authority, financial impact that impact the NOP’s (National Organic Program) ability to act on the NOSB’s recommendation,” she said. “In 2010, the NOSB tried to recommend a prohibition of hydroponics. The NOP since that time asked the NOSB to clarify that recommendation, such as ‘what exactly it considers to be hydroponics’? Since then, there have been a number of discussions and efforts to clarify and update the NOSB’s recommendation to the NOP.”
Damewood says the proposal at a recent meeting would have been a recommendation to prohibit hydroponics, but that failed. “The only recommendation that did pass was a recommendation to prohibit aeroponics, which is a type of hydroponics,” she said. “There aren’t currently any certified aeroponic operations.”
The bottom line is that the NOSB failed to recommend a prohibition. “So it isn’t the NOSB deciding that hydroponics are allowed — that isn’t the case,” said Damewood. “There are existing hydroponic and aquaponic operations that are certified organic. The result is actually more a status quo than a huge change to certification, but it’s still important because existing certified organic hydroponic growers are concerned by efforts to recommend prohibition of their production systems.”
Damewood says hydroponic organic certification has been allowed by some certifying agencies for quite a while, but added that the issue has always been somewhat clouded. “It’s always been an understanding of the organic community that the NOP would eventually bring clarity to the issue and would rule-make on it, but now we’re in 2017 and that still has not happened,” she said. “Meanwhile, the NOP has allowed a number of hydroponic operations to achieve certification.”
Although the number of certified organic hydroponic growers isn’t large, Damewood says producers are interested in such systems for a number of reasons. Some certifying organizations will not certify hydroponics, but other certifiers will. Like all organic operations, certified hydroponic growers must protect natural resources, foster biological diversity and use only approved inputs.
“The NOP should have clarified long ago which production systems were eligible for certification and provided guidance to certifiers,” said Damewood. “It’s not clear-cut. The NOP is responsible for providing clear guidance on what can and cannot be certified, and the NOP has stated to certifiers that hydroponic systems are eligible for organic certification.”
“We see both in-ground and hydroponic producers developing innovative systems to address today’s production challenges,” said Damewood, adding that CCOF certifies qualified hydroponic growers. Like all other organic producers, hydroponic growers who are certified organic can only use materials approved for use in organic production. “They have to make sure their fertility systems and media they’re using are allowed for use in organic production,” said Damewood. “They also need to demonstrate that they’re facilitating biodiversity and conserving natural resources.”
Damewood says producers meet certification standards through a variety of means, including on-site composting that incorporates cuttings and trimmings from in-ground and container-grown crops. Others establish plants that attract beneficial insects or incorporate hedgerows.
“Despite the NOSB failing to recommend a prohibition of hydroponics, there is still regulatory uncertainty for hydroponic systems,” said Damewood. “They’re unique and evolving systems. CCOF worked with a range of stakeholders to propose to the NOSB at this meeting clarifications and some additions to the organic standards that we believe would bring greater clarity and consistency to the certification of these unique systems, and we included in that proposed standard a labeling requirement. The label would clearly state, ‘hydroponically grown’ or ‘container grown’ or ‘aquaponically grown’; recognizing that this is a unique production system and we want to ensure clarity and transparency for consumers. We proposed that, but we would welcome the opportunity to work with others to refine that proposal and have encouraged the NOSB to consider this labeling requirement.”
With a new label, there’s the potential for additional label confusion in the marketplace. “There are a number of labels that consumer studies show cause confusion,” said Damewood. “Some people associate the labeling claim ‘non-GMO’ as equivalent to organic, but it isn’t. We’re very cognizant of the potential for consumer confusion, and we certainly support a hydroponically grown labeling statement to bring clarity and transparency to these systems. We want to make sure it’s done in a straightforward way so we’re limiting the potential for confusion.”
Damewood says the issue has been portrayed as a corporate takeover with hydroponic methods, but it’s much more complicated than that. “There’s a range of hydroponic systems, everything from roots touching water to plants growing in a substrate in a container,” she said. “There’s a range of systems and scales and types of producers, and we are certifying very small hydroponic operations who are providing fresh greens to their local communities. Both in-ground and hydroponic systems have the potential to address the severe shortages in land, labor and water that agricultural production faces today.”
CCOF wants organic producers to thrive and succeed, and is seeing a number of producers try innovative methods to remain competitive and continue to provide organic food at all scales and for all distribution channels. Damewood says consumers can trust the USDA Organic seal. “It’s a transparent, democratic, robust regulatory process,” she said. “It’s the most meaningful seal in the marketplace, and we believe in the principles and standards behind the seal. It’s up to us to make sure the standards remain strong, and that the consumer understands what they’re purchasing.”
In addition to its certification services, CCOF also has a branch that does advocacy and policy work. Damewood worked with the certification staff to hone in potential clarification and additions to the standards, and spoke with a number of members, both in-ground and hydroponic producers. “We’re interested in taking the effort a little further and working with other certifiers and other types of producers to refine and expand the work we’ve done so far,” she said.
Damewood says it’s been emotionally challenging to watch how this issue has pitted growers, organizations and individuals against one another. “We all have the same goal, and we should all be working together to advance organic and help producers succeed and thrive,” she said. “CCOF wants to support the NOSB in finding a resolution to this issue. We drafted standards that we would like to continue to work on with the NOSB and other stakeholders. We’d like to see a labeling requirement established so we can conclude this issue and move on to other challenges.”