Focal Point of First USDA Regulatory Meeting Since Crisis: Hydroponics

Former NOP director Miles McEvoy, before
exiting under an ethical cloud from the USDA,
visiting with Karen Archipley at her hydroponic
operation. Archipley is a spokesperson for
Coalition for Sustainable Organics, an astroturf
group funded by hydroponic industry interests.
Image source: USDA

When organic stakeholders and lobbyists converge in the sunshine state October 31 for the semiannual meeting of the USDA’s National Organic Standards Board, front and center will be the debate about whether to change the federal organic standards to allow organic produce grown hydroponically. The practice of growing fruits and vegetables in inert mediums that depend on liquid fertilizers, rather than in rich organically managed soil, has been intensely controversial. The USDA has quietly allowed importers and major agribusinesses to skirt the legal requirements for careful soil stewardship and still qualify for use of the organic seal.

Over the summer, the USDA’s National Organic Program (NOP) has faced a maelstrom of criticism after a series of investigative reports in The Washington Post documented abuses on factory farms and large quantities of fraudulent organic commodities being imported from Eastern Europe.

Then on September 18, the Office of Inspector General at the USDA released the results of an audit finding the USDA failing dismally in their congressionally mandated oversight of imports.  The fraudulent imports have been crushing markets for domestic farmers in the organic grain sector. Also in September, the NOP’s longtime director, Miles McEvoy, announced his abrupt retirement after nearly a decade on the job.

“A number of major controversies are coming to a head simultaneously,” said Mark Kastel, codirector of The Cornucopia Institute, a prominent organic industry watchdog.

“Ethical farmers and their marketing partners are victims of a cozy relationship between regulators at the USDA and the industry’s powerful lobby group, the Organic Trade Association,” Kastel added. “Family-scale farmers are being squeezed out of the growing industry, and the reputation of the organic label has been harmed — the USDA and corporate lobbyists are now in full-on damage control mode.”

The current makeup of the NOSB, which Congress created as a buffer to insulate organic rulemaking from the undue influence of corporate lobbying, is emblematic of the divide in the industry. Over the years, public interest groups have charged that the expert advisory panel, given statutory authority by Congress, has been stacked with members of the OTA holding seats the law designated for farmers and other independent stakeholders.

An executive of Driscoll’s, the berry giant and one of the largest hydroponic growers in the nation, just completed a five-year term on the USDA in a seat designated by Congress for someone who owns or operates an organic farm.  Driscoll’s does not actually grow any organic berries but rather contracts with independent growers. A lawsuit against the USDA, filed by a couple of family farmers who applied for farmer seats on the NOSB but were passed over, is still working its way through the courts.

The Cornucopia Institute publishes a scorecard of how NOSB members vote which illustrates how corporate agribusiness employees, from companies such as Whole Foods, Earthbound Farm, Driscoll’s, and Clif Bar, almost exclusively vote with corporate lobbyists, despite the pro-organic rhetoric of their employers.

“Some NOSB members, with good intentions, have tried to craft a compromise requiring some amount of soil in the containers that giant industrial complexes use to grow hydroponic crops,” said Dr. Linley Dixon, Cornucopia’s senior scientist. “Unfortunately, the current regulations requiring soil are clear, and what is being proposed is unenforceable, ripe for abuse, and will lead to increased imports from European Union countries, and elsewhere, where hydroponics is clearly forbidden to be labeled as organic.”

Cornucopia is promoting a petition to the NOSB, already signed by thousands of consumers, standing by the pioneering farmers in the organic movement who have clearly stated that soil needs to be the foundation of organic growing and regulation. To increase the flavor and nutritional content of organic food, organic growers’ mantra, for over half a century, has been “feed the soil, not the plants.”  This stands in stark contrast to industrialized agriculture.

Although organics has become a $43 billion, rapidly growing industry, the farmers who built the movement have not forgotten their roots. Decades-long organic producer, Dave Chapman of East Thetford, Vermont, and one of the leaders in the Keep the Soil in Organic movement, stated, “The whole organic movement was based on a respect and a reverence for 350 million years of co-evolution between plants and soil.”

Chapman has been joined by organic leaders at over a dozen rallies around the world, illustrating broad-based interest by the public in having organic regulations continue to be tied to the regenerative practices of growing in the soil. At the rallies, consumers expressed concern over the nutritional content of food that comes from acres of monoculture production in sealed, massive, industrial-scale greenhouses. Small containers filled with conventional coconut husks are fertilized continuously with liquid conventional soybean solutions, rather than fertile soil.

Organic hydroponic production was quietly approved by the USDA’s McEvoy, even though prior decisions from the NOSB made it clear that there was no provision in the regulations for allowing it. Most of the production comes from industrial-scale facilities in the desert Southwest of the U.S., Mexico, Canada, or Holland.

“Industrial agriculture will attempt to either destroy, or co-opt and absorb, any movement that threatens its supremacy” said John Ikerd, Emeritus Professor of agricultural economics from the University of Missouri.

“After spending the last half of my life helping promote the organic farming movement, I am heartbroken to hear some growers threatening to opt out of organic certification, or develop an alternative add-on label if the stewardship of nutrient-rich soil is eliminated as a foundational requirement,” added Cornucopia’s Kastel. “There will be a lot at stake in Jacksonville in a few days.”


Cornucopia researchers working on the NOSB scorecard project, led by Jason Cole, analyzed voting trends over recent years. The board, during the tenure of the USDA’s McEvoy at the National Organic Program (NOP), has been increasingly stacked with members of the OTA.

To our knowledge, no other analysis of NOSB voting behavior is available. The impetus to create this resource, in 2014, was the perceived shift, at that point, to appointing board members with an allegiance to corporate agribusinesses. At that time, members of the industry’s lead lobby group, the Organic Trade Association, had acquired many of the top organic brands.

By 2014, the 15 members of the NOSB were down to voting only 55% of the time in favor of policies recommended by public interest groups representing farmers and consumers. In 2016 and 2017, that trend has fallen to 26% and 37% respectively.

It should be noted that every year some board votes were unanimous. Cornucopia researchers only tracked contested votes, many of which were byproducts of heated national debates on maintaining the integrity of the organic label.

“Previous Democratic and Republican administrations have favored corporate representatives on the board, despite Congress having set up the NOSB to buffer the influence of lobbyists. During the Obama administration, Miles McEvoy, guiding the USDA Secretary’s selections for the picks for the board, made sure that agribusiness won the vast majority of the disputed votes,” according to Cornucopia’s Mark Kastel.

And these percentages are critical, since decisive votes by the NOSB require a two-thirds majority.

Truly independent voices on the board have fallen precipitously. In 2014, there were four members of the board who voted over 75% of the time in concert with the recommendations of the consumer and farming groups, and nine members who voted that way over 50% of the time. In 2016 and 2017, only one board member voted with the nonprofits three-quarters of the time, and only three voted that way half of the time.

The majority of contested votes, by the balance of the board members, were consistent with policy positions advocated by interests representing “factory farms,” manufacturers of gimmicky nutraceuticals and other non-organic food ingredients, and corporate lobbyists representing the largest food processors and marketers in the country.

It’s worth noting that lobbyists in Congress are threatening to add additional agribusiness-designated seats to the makeup of the NOSB.

NOSB member scores on contested issues:

Average score – 54.5%
# at 75% or over – 4 members
# at 50% or over – 9 members

Average score – 53.9%
# at 75% or over – 2 members
# at 50% or over – 5 members

Average score – 25.9%
# at 75% or over – 1 member
# at 50% or over – 3 members

Average score – 37%
# at 75% or over – 1 member
# at 50% or over – 3 members

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