Organic Advocacy Groups File Legal Action to Prohibit Hydroponics from Organic

January 16th, 2019

[Read the rulemaking petition to the USDA.]

Healthy Soils are a Legal Requirement of Organic Production
Soil-less “Organic” Systems are Misleading to Consumers, Undercut Farmers

Today, Center for Food Safety (CFS) filed a new legal action demanding the Department of Agriculture (USDA) prohibit hydroponic operations from the organic label. Hydroponic production systems—a catch-all term that applies to food production methods that do not use soil—do not meet federal organic standards and violate organic law, which requires that organic farming include soil improvement and biodiversity conservation. Hydroponic systems cannot comply with the organic standard’s vital soil standards because hydroponic crops do not use soil at all. The CFS filing was endorsed by over a dozen other organic farmer, consumer, retailer, and certifying organizations, including the Organic Farmers Association, Northwest Organic Dairy Producers Alliance (NODPA), PCC Community Markets, and the Cornucopia Institute.

Source: Adobe Stock

“Mislabeling mega-hydroponic operations as ‘organic’ is contrary to the text and basic principles of the organic standard. Right now there is a pitched battle for the future of organic, and we stand with organic farmers and consumers who believe the label must retain its integrity,” said George Kimbrell, CFS legal director.

Consumers trust the organic label and pay extra for the assurance that it indicates a more healthful and environmentally-friendly way of producing the food they buy. Since the federal Certified Organic label was introduced more than twenty years ago, the organic food market has grown exponentially and is now a $60 billion industry in which multinational corporations have bought organic brands and compete with small food producers growing food using environmentally-friendly methods.

“Allowing hydroponic systems to be certified as organic undercuts the livelihood of organic farmers that take great lengths to support healthy soil as the bedrock of their farms,” stated Kate Mendenhall of the Organic Farmers Association. “Hydroponic producers getting the benefit of the organic label without actually doing anything to benefit the soil undermines the standard and put all soil-based organic farmers at an untenable economic disadvantage.”

Organic agriculture has always been defined using soil requirements such as fostering soil fertility, improving soil quality, and using environmentally beneficial farming methods such as proper tillage and crop rotation. The National Organic Standards Board (NOSB), the expert body assigned by Congress to advise USDA on organic matters, recommended that the agency prohibit certification of hydroponic systems, but USDA instead continues to allow hydroponics. Canada and Mexico also prohibit hydroponics from organic, and the European Parliament voted to end the organic certification of hydroponic products in April 2018.

Source: Adobe Stock

“Corporate agribusiness lobbyists have been working to water down the organic standards for decades,” said Mark Kastel, Executive Director for The Cornucopia Institute. “In this case, the careful stewardship of soil fertility is not only a philosophical precept, it’s codified in federal law.”

Since the USDA’s National Organic Program has failed to enforce the clear congressional requirement for soil-based organic farming, late last year The Cornucopia Institute published a Hydroponic Buyer’s Guide to identify the stealthy brands marketing their soil-less produce as “organic.”

“There is currently no legal requirement to identify hydroponic produce in the marketplace,” said Cornucopia’s Kastel. “Our web-based tool is intended to facilitate consumers’ and wholesale buyers’ right to make informed decisions while shopping, until this petition hopefully sparks action at the USDA.”

The petition states that the following groups support the decertification effort: The Cornucopia Institute, Food & Water Watch, Cultivate Oregon, Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association (MOFGA), Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association Certification Service, Northwest Organic Dairy Producers Alliance (NODPA), Organic Farmers Association (OFA), Northeast Organic Farming Association of Connecticut (CT NOFA), Northeast Organic Farming Association Interstate Council, Northeast Organic Farming Association of New Jersey (NOFA-NJ), Northwest (sic) Organic Farming Association – New York (NOFA-NY), Northeast Organic Farming Association of Vermont (NOFA-VT), and PCC Community Markets.


The Cornucopia Institute is a farm policy research group based in Cornucopia, Wisconsin, best known as an organic industry watchdog. PCC Natural Markets is the largest consumer-owned retailer of organic food in the U.S., the Organic Farmers Association (OFA) is a democratically controlled farm group with representation in Washington, and the Northeast Organic Dairy Producers Association (NODPA) represents organic dairy farmers in the Northeast and has a national policy impact.

CFS has been protecting the integrity of the federal organic standard since its beginning in the 1990s. As a representative for all organic stakeholders—consumers, farmers, producers, certifiers, and retailers—CFS has a strong vested interest in maintaining the integrity of the National Organic Program and ensuring that consistent principles and standards of organic certification apply to all products labeled organic.

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