by Sally Colby
Andrianna Natsoulas, executive director of the Northeast Farming Association of New York (NOFA-NY), says that the recent 8 to 7 vote on whether to hydroponics should be certified organic is a complicated topic. But she’s glad that people are asking questions, and is happy to clarify misunderstandings.
As background, Natsoulas explains that the National Organic Standard Board (NOSB) works as an advisory board to the National Organic Program (NOP). The USDA’s National Organic Program is in charge of certifiers, and conducts audits of those certifiers to make sure they’re implementing the established National Organic Program regulations.
“It has been on the radar to certify organic hydroponics for some time now,” said Natsoulas. “There are certifiers across the country that are approved by the USDA to certify organics. Some of them chose to already certify hydroponics as organic. Others have not. It’s optional because there are no standards, there are no guidelines for the certifiers to certify organic hydroponics.”
Natsoulas describes the topic of organic certification of hydroponics as ‘sitting out there in uncertain space’. “In this recent decision by the NOSB, which was only an eight to seven to decision, a very close vote, they decided that they were not against the certification of hydroponics,” she said. “The implication of saying that provides the avenue to go ahead and develop standards for the certification of hydroponics.”
Natsoulas further explains that if the vote had gone the other direction, eight against and seven in favor of, the advisory board (NOSB) would have said ‘we do not agree with moving forward with the organic certification of hydroponics’ and that would have been their advice.
The issue is clouded and divisive, and Natsoulas says NOFA-NY does not support the certification of hydroponics. “We believe that organics in the soil is the better ecosystem, and hydroponics is not part of the soil ecosystem,” she said. “It’s solely growing food for consumption without taking into consideration all the other elements. From our perspective, if you want to be optimistic, which not many people are, this still has to go through the National Organic Program, but the NOP takes whatever the NOSB recommends.”
Natsoulas speculates that the hydroponic community would likely be in support of an organic certification option because it would give them an additional marketing advantage. But another aspect of the issue is that consumers who are already confused by labels will be even more confused with organic hydroponic labeling. “We refer to it as label fatigue,” she said. “What is organic certification? What is all-natural? What is regenerative organic? It gets so confusing.”
“The NOFAs (the Northeast Organic Farming Associations) existed before the USDA had an organic certification program,” said Natsoulas. “We existed prior to the development of the organic standard, and the people who were part of all the various organic organizations across the country participated in the process of developing the standard, and were thrilled to have a clear label that was government-monitored and would provide consumers with clear information. Unfortunately, now you go into the grocery store and there are all sorts of different labels. Still, having the USDA seal of approval gives some level of comfort, and that’s why we were in such great opposition for the NOSB to essentially approve the certification of hydroponics because it’s confusing. What’s next? There are so many other decisions that are going through the NOSB that may not embody the original intent.”
Natsoulas says the issue needs to be monitored and make sure the original intent of the label is maintained. “Consumers want confidence in labels,” she said. “They want confidence in the choices they make at the grocery store and at the farmers market.”
NOFA-NY includes two arms: one is focused on advocacy outreach and education, and the other is as the certifier. NOFA-NY certifies more than 1,000 entities, which include farmers and value-added processors. The majority of farmers and processors certified by NOFA-NY are in New York, but one is in Florida, another is in Colorado and a few are in Pennsylvania.
NOFA-NY is part of an umbrella of NOFAs across the northeast. “There are seven of us,” said Natsoulas. “There’s also Vermont, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, New Hampshire, New Jersey and Connecticut. We’re developing our strategy. We are also a member of the National Organic Coalition (NOC), so there are a lot of different networks and alliances out there who are collaborating to figure out what our next steps are.” Natasoulas added that the NOC includes environmental and consumer interests as well as organic farming organizations.
An organic producer can choose which organic certifier they want to use. “The other issue around organic is that it isn’t just the market,” said Natsoulas, adding that it makes the most sense for producers to certify with an agency in their state. “It’s supporting the local community. It’s more than a label. It’s an attitude, a philosophical decision, an economic decision, an ecological decision, a community decision. It isn’t just about being able to get that higher price in the marketplace