Hydroponics (aka Container Growing) Could Be Revisited in the Spring

Whether or not to allow hydroponics as a production technique in organics was up for a vote at last week’s National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) meeting in St. Louis. In the end, the controversial hydroponics vote was delayed with the can kicked down the road to an NOSB that will have five new incoming members in January.

NOSB debates hydroponics

The decision to delay the vote was a big win for the hydroponics lobby that wants to maintain the status quo. Currently some certifiers are allowing hydroponic operations to be labeled organic, while others do not because of a lack of guidance from the USDA’s National Organic Program (NOP).

Language in the Organic Foods Production Act and the current federal regulations clearly indicate that good soil stewardship is a prerequisite to qualify for organic certification. In 2010 the NOSB reinforced the soil prerequisite by passing recommendations that reiterated the prohibition of hydroponic certification. The National Organic Program never acted on these recommendations.

Since then, an industry-friendly USDA has allowed some of the largest certifiers, including California Certified Organic Farmers (CCOF) and Quality Assurance International (QAI), to certify hydroponically produced tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, eggplant, and berries at an alarming rate.

A proposal to allow hydroponics at last week’s NOSB meeting would have overturned the board’s 2010 recommendation and would have required two-thirds of the 14 NOSB members present at the meeting to vote in its favor.

Hydroponic proponents on the NOSB include a Driscoll’s employee (Driscoll’s grows hydroponic container berries) and the Executive Director of QAI. QAI is one of the largest certifiers of hydroponic operations. The organization certifies Wholesum Harvest, a hydroponic container operation with over 600 acres on both sides of the Mexico/Arizona border. A staff member of CCOF also participated in the debate and vote.

Cornucopia had filed a request with the Staff Director of the National Organic Program, Miles McEvoy, concerning conflicts of interest on the board.

Hydroponics industry advocates sitting on the NOSB were likely concerned that they did not have two-thirds of the board on their side and had begun lobbying to delay the vote several weeks before the meeting began.

However, what they did have was a simple majority to send the proposal back to the board’s crops subcommittee so that key definitions could potentially be reworked in their favor.

The hydroponics lobby is hoping that in future proposals, pure “roots in water” hydroponics will be separated from container growing where the roots are in a soil-less and inert media such as coco coir or peat moss (a technique that Driscoll’s, Wholesum Harvest and other large multinational corporations use).

The problem for the hydroponic container growers was that the proposal at this meeting defined hydroponics as “plants [grown] in mineral nutrient solutions with or without an inert growing media to provide mechanical support.” While this is the classic definition of hydroponics in the scientific literature (and among the growers themselves prior to the current debate before the NOSB), it is not the definition that hydroponic container growers want, as it would prohibit their growing practices.

It is the position of The Cornucopia Institute that it does not matter whether the roots are sitting purely in water or in a “container” with a soil-less substrate that does not provide plant nutrition if the production model depends on liquid fertilizer for nearly all plant growth, and/or is devoid of soil. It cannot legally qualify as “organic” under the law.

Surprisingly, Vermont resident and former NOSB chair Dr. Jean Richardson, who was appointed to the NOSB as a public/consumer representative, voted in favor of delaying the vote. Dr. Richardson’s vote was especially insulting to Vermont organic farmers who had spearheaded the protest of organic fruit and vegetable production by giant multinational corporations growing hydroponically. Much of this produce is grown overseas where it is illegal to label and sell it as organic in their own countries. She had expressed her solidarity with local farmers in the past.

After the decision not to vote for reinstituting a ban on hydroponics, the NOSB passed a weak, non-binding resolution with the goal of informing the organic community that they intend to prohibit “hydroponics” at some point in the future (although clearly intending to leave the door open for growing hydroponically in containers under a new definition).

The resolution that ultimately passed included the statement, “It is the consensus of the NOSB to prohibit hydroponic systems that have an entirely water based substrate. Although it was the intent of the hydroponic proposal before us today, the current proposal as structured does not achieve this objective. While the NOSB does not believe that liquid substrate systems should be sold under the USDA organic label, these growers deserve the chance to promote their very commendable qualities and objectives in their own right.”

Two independent farmers on the NOSB, Emily Oakley (a vegetable producer) and Dr. Francis Thicke (a dairy farmer), attempted, but failed, to insert the following eight words at the end of this sentence in the resolution: “It is the consensus of the NOSB to prohibit hydroponic systems that have an entirely water based substrate [or are wholly dependent on liquid fertility inputs].”

Those eight words caught the industry-affiliated members of the board off guard.  Described as looking like “deer caught in headlights,” they quickly developed a litany of excuses why that additional amended language should not be included in their non-binding resolution.

The vote to include the stronger, more inclusive, amended language failed to reach a simple majority by one vote. Had CCOF staff member Zea Sonnabend (CCOF is Driscoll’s certifier) voted in favor of including those eight words, it would have sent a clear message to the organic community that container systems using inert media are, indeed, hydroponic systems.

In the end, the very weak, toothless resolution was passed and was described by the NOSB chair as “non-binding” guidance to the NOP.

In addition to farmers from a number of states who testified at the NOSB meeting, The Cornucopia Institute presented approximately 1,400 individually signed proxy letters from farmers and consumers in 40 states strongly stating that organic certification should not take place unless soil stewardship is a requirement.

The Cornucopia Institute will continue to point out to the organic community that container systems using inert media are in fact hydroponic because they depend on the continuous feeding of liquid nutrients — both styles of growing should be disqualified from organic certification. (Cornucopia also has filed a formal legal complaint with the USDA challenging the practice.)

While hydroponic systems have their own merits, such as higher profitability, they are not organic because they do not improve the organic matter in the soil. As long as hydroponic container operations are allowed to be certified organic – something that’s illegal in many countries – farmers that nurture the soil will be placed at an economic disadvantage.

The Cornucopia Institute will continue to monitor the rulemaking process and keep organic stakeholders, farmers, consumers, and ethical businesses informed and aware of opportunities to influence the process.

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