New Guide Separates Hydroponic (Soil-less) “Organic” Produce From the Real McCoy

A prominent organic industry watchdog, The Cornucopia Institute, just released a report on “organic” hydroponics, exposing a rapidly accelerating trend in organic fruit and vegetable production: the shift to growing produce in industrial settings, with nutrients primarily coming from a liquid fertilizer solution, instead of rich fertile soil, as required by federal law.

In addition to the report, Cornucopia also published a mobile-friendly, companion buyer’s guide, lifting the veil on the brands that clandestinely market hydroponic production as organic.  Hydroponic produce is explicitly prohibited from being labeled as organic in Canada, Mexico, and most other developed countries. The European Union recently voted to close a loophole that was permitting a few northern EU states to label hydroponics as “organic.” Many countries where growers are prohibited from marketing hydroponic produce as organic, such as Holland, are major exporters to the U.S.

“With hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of venture and equity capital being invested in industrial-scale greenhouses the size of football fields, parking lots filled with thousands of containers with drip irrigation, or ‘vertical farms’ in cities, consumers and wholesale buyers need a way to discern which certified organic fruits and vegetables are truly nutrient-dense and produced according to the law,” said Mark A. Kastel, Executive Director of The Cornucopia Institute, a Wisconsin-based farm policy research group.

Currently there are no federal or state regulations requiring labeling or signage in grocery stores to differentiate conventional or organic hydroponic products from those grown using traditional farming practices, in soil.

“Just as an emerging body of scientific literature is identifying the importance of a healthy and diverse gut microbiome, much of which is introduced through our diets, we have a rapidly increasing percentage of our food being produced in sanitized, artificial environments,” Kastel added. “This is especially egregious in the production of organic food, as consumers are willing to pay a premium based on published research indicating true organic management practices result in nutritional superiority and flavor.”

Hydroponic strawberries in an
industrial greenhouse
Image source: AdobeStock

There are currently no standards in the USDA organic regulations specifying how hydroponic or aquaponic producers should operate, according to Cornucopia. “Some of the largest third-party organic certification agents, hired by corporate agribusinesses, are literally just making up the rules on their own,” Kastel said.

In contrast, many other organic certifiers read the law and interpret it the same way Cornucopia does: Congress included a prerequisite in the Organic Foods Production Act (OFPA), passed in 1990, requiring careful soil stewardship, maintaining or improving fertility, be in place before a farm’s produce could qualify for organic status.

In 2010, the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB), an expert body of organic industry stakeholders charged by Congress with advising the USDA Secretary on implementing OFPA, clearly stated that soil-less, hydroponic production was in conflict with the foundational concepts underpinning the organic label.

At the time, the powerful industry lobby group, Organic Trade Association (OTA), backed the prohibition, based on the fact that Canada, a major export market for U.S. produce, rejects hydroponic production from being labeled organic.

However, as corporate agribusiness heavily invested in organic hydroponics over the ensuing years, the OTA changed its stance and has become one of its strongest proponents. According to documents obtained by Cornucopia through the Freedom of Information Act, the largest organic certifier in the country and a major OTA contributor, California Certified Organic Farmers (CCOF), publicly disagreed with the NOSB-recommended prohibition and then made a quiet deal with the USDA to start certifying hydroponics. Other certifiers, attracted by big dollars changing hands, have since followed suit.

Thousands of organic consumers have downloaded and signed proxy letters, addressed to the CEOs of major retailers of organic produce in this country, asking them to create in-store signage to help them choose what produce to buy. Cornucopia says that they are currently in discussions with officers at some of the retailers, including Costco, Target, Safeway, Kroger, and Walmart.

The largest hydroponic brands in the country, like giant berry producer Driscoll’s and Wholesum Harvest, with massive greenhouses of tomatoes in the desert Southwest and Mexico, say nothing about their production practices on their cases or product labels.

“Sadly, the only way consumers can currently know if they are getting true organic produce is to consult Cornucopia’s buyer’s guide while shopping,” said Dave Chapman, a longtime soil-based greenhouse grower in Vermont. “Hopefully in the future, responsible retailers will start identifying true organic produce. Right now, with the corruption between industry interests and the USDA, there is no way of knowing what is real organic.”


From The Cornucopia Institute’s white paper on organic hydroponics:

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) was the first government entity to officially define organic in 1978.  Having banned the use of the word organic in 1974 (likely due to pressure that it would condemn conventional agriculture), four years later the FTC reversed its stance due to overwhelming consumer demand and defined organic as:

Organically grown food is produced on humus-rich soil whose fertility has been maintained with organic materials and natural mineral fertilizers. No pesticides, artificial fertilizers or synthetic additives are used in the production of organic foods.” [emphasis added]

Even though the NOP has never issued guidance or regulations on certifying soil-less organic growing, some accredited certifying agents (ACAs) have gone ahead anyway.  It is a lucrative profit center for certifiers that has been green-lighted by the regulators. As of June 2018, there are at least 16 ACAs (out of a total of approximately 44 domestic certifiers) that certify hydroponic/aquaponic systems, or have done so in the past. They include:

ABO (A Bee Organic)
AI (Americert International)
BOC (Baystate Organic Certifiers)
CCOF (California Certified Organic Farmers)
CDA (Colorado Department of Agriculture)
CUC (Control Union Certifications)
ECO (EcoCert),
GOA (Global Organic Alliance)
MCIA (Minnesota Crop Improvement Association
MOSA (Midwest Organic Services Association)
OC (Organic Certifiers, Inc)
OTCO (Oregon Tilth Certified Organic)
PCO (Pennsylvania Certified Organic)
PL (Primus Labs)
PRO (Pro-Cert Organic Systems)
QAI (Quality Assurance International)

Since there are no published regulations, the certifiers are making up their own rules in consort with their “clients.”  It was this type of subjective market chaos that originally led to the passage of the Organic Foods Production Act nearly 30 years ago.

The Cornucopia Institute has also published an FAQ addressing common responses from major hydroponic players, such as Driscoll’s, and some of the trade lobbyists representing corporate agribusiness, including the Organic Trade Association (OTA) and The Coalition for Sustainable Organics (an “astroturf” group founded by businesses that have invested in hydroponic production).

According to Dave Chapman, Vermont organic greenhouse grower and one of the pioneering farmers leading the fight to preserve soil in organic production, “As far as the inevitable spin that the hydro folks will put out, the biggest whopper is ‘We’re not hydroponic. We are container growers.’”

Chapman continued, “Every effort is being made to confuse this issue in the minds of consumers. To everyone in the greenhouse industry, hydroponic is a term used to describe growing plants by supplying most of their nutrition in a liquid, plant-available solution, whether in a container or in a water-filled pipe.” This is a radical departure from the way that a plant gets its nutrition in nature and deviates from principles respected from the inception of the organic farming movement.

The Cornucopia Institute is continuing to collect proxy letters demanding that hydroponic fruit and vegetables be labeled and identified with in-store signage in grocery produce departments. Proxies will be forwarded to retail industry executives as Cornucopia negotiates for this labeling approach.  “Just like the debate swirling around the labeling of genetically modified organisms in food, consumers deserve the right to know,” Cornucopia’s Kastel added.

The proxy letters can be downloaded at the organization’s website:

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