by Tamara Scully

The USDA’s National Organic Program (NOP), established by Congress in 2001, was supposed to have created standard definitions and regulations for food grown as certified organic. Under the NOP, the definitions of organic production would be standardized, and everyone would know what that meant.

It’s obvious the USDA’s certified organic seal isn’t doing the job. Add-on labels to the USDA’s certified organic designation are multiplying as complaints about questionable practices, loopholes and lenient certifying agencies continue to grow.

The controversy surrounding allowed or prohibited substances is one arena of conflict. Discussions surrounding the certification of hydroponic growing operations have been ongoing for more than a decade, and have only become increasingly divisive as technology expands and large growing operations have entered the marketplace with certified organic products that are not grown in a soil-centric growing system.

Concerned about large industrialized operations taking advantage of lax oversight or loopholes in the NOP standards, angered by Big Ag’s lobbyists working to allow alleged abuses to continue and fed up with the lack of progress from the NOP, add-on labels to clarify that growers are going beyond the USDA’s requirements for certification are proliferating.

The Real Organic Project’s certification and the Rodale Institute’s add-on label of Regenerative Organic Certified offer farmers means of distinguishing themselves as operations which hold themselves to higher standards than the USDA requires. All of these require USDA organic certification as a baseline, and growers must then meet each program’s enhanced standards.

Soil Science and Hydroponics

One of the most divisive issues facing the NOP today is whether or not soilless growing should be allowed to be certified as organic. In a hydroponic system, roots are not planted in soil but rather in water, or soilless substrates such as coir, polyurethane foam, sand, vermiculite, rockwool or gravel. In such systems, fertility has to be added and fed to the crop via fertigation. This is outside the definition of what many believe to be the root of organic agriculture: building a hale soil base to support crop, microbe and ecosystem health.

“Organic farming has always been based on the idea that a fertile soil will build healthy crops, healthy livestock and healthy human beings,” Dave Chapman, Organic Farmers Association (OFA), said. “How soil is tended is critical” to a healthy climate too, a factor which is increasingly important, he added.

The OFA was formed in 2016 by a network of organic farmers to support organic farming at the national level, and is supported by the Rodale Institute. The OFA opposes the certification of hydroponic growing as organic, as such systems make little or no use of soil, relying on fertility inputs into the growing system and not contributing to soil-plant ecology.

In 2010, the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) recommended that the NOP disallow hydroponic growing systems based on this fact. At the time, NOP rules were to be developed based on this recommendation, Chapman explained. The 2010 NOSB recommendation reads in part that “observing the framework of organic farming based on its foundation of sound management of soil biology and ecology, it becomes clear that systems of crop production that eliminate soil from the system, such as hydroponics or aeroponics, cannot be considered as examples of acceptable organic farming practices.”

In 2014, the NOP decided to allow hydroponic production under the USDA certified organic label, ignoring NOSB recommendations. In 2016, as large-scale hydroponic growers pursued organic certification and vast amounts of money were made in this sector, some organizations began to change their views on certain production methods, Chapman said, pointing out that the Organic Trade Association (OTA) now supports container-based growing systems that do not rely on plant-soil ecology.

The OTA released a statement in 2017 clarifying that they agree with NOSB recommendations that “entirely water-based systems (hydroponics and aeroponics) should be prohibited in organics, and that organic container production should meet strict and appropriate production standards.”

There is as of now no accepted parameters to distinguish hydroponic systems that might not qualify for USDA organic certification from container-based systems which would qualify if they are not strictly water-based, as the OTA suggested.

In the last NOSB meeting in autumn 2019, this issue was not addressed, except to clarify that container-based growing systems must meet established certification protocols, which did not bring any clarity to the situation. Controversy remains, with no resolution is in sight. The NOP continues to allow certification of produce not grown directly in soil as long as it meets other parameters for certification.

It’s not all about the lettuce and other greens. Berries, tomatoes, cucumbers, squash, eggplant and peppers are some of the crops now being grown in container systems and are currently allowed to be certified organic. Large growers are certified to grow in this manner under the USDA’s certified organic seal, Chapman said, and these products are not labeled as being hydroponically grown – misleading consumers who can’t distinguish them from certified organic crops grown in soil.

“You can’t compete with hydroponic products without being able to identify yourself in the marketplace,” Chapman said, explaining how an add-on label can benefit organic farmers growing in soil.

Production methods such as hydroponics can fulfill a need in regions where there is not enough rainfall by recycling the water solution and allowing food to be grown in controlled greenhouse environments, Chapman said, and hydroponic growers often tout their water conservation as an important part of their sustainability. Likewise, in a good organic system, water isn’t lost to the soil, but recycled in a broad hydrological cycle which includes the release of water into the atmosphere. In such a system, soil plays an important role.

“We are trying to build an organic ecosystem and the soil is a critical part of that,” Chapman said, indicating that organic farmers build soil health, which in turn conserves water and performs other crucial functions in a complex ecological system where soil and plants interact.

The opposition from many organic farmers to hydroponic container systems, no matter what substrate is used, is that such systems don’t rely on soil and soil-plant interactions. Yet soil is, by definition, the foundation of organic farming.

“We’re up against systemic problems here,” Chapman stated. “What’s happening to organic, and to the meaning of organic, in America?”