Recent discussions surrounding “organic” hydroponic operations have had the organic community in an uproar. Serious questions first raised by the Real Organic Project were raised again at the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) meeting this past April regarding rumors of hydroponic operations spraying glyphosate or other pesticides on the land just prior to erecting a greenhouse and being immediately certified organic.

National Organic Program (NOP) representatives did not clarify whether the three-year transition period (during which no synthetic or prohibited substances can be used) applied to hydroponic operations as it does all other organic production methods.

Allowing hydroponic operations to be certified organic without clear standards has further exacerbated certifier and consumer confusion. It is now known that at least one certifier had dispensed with the three-year transition period for container operations. Based on an April statement of policy by that certifier, it appears to have become a widespread practice among certifiers.

Importantly, the concern expressed by the NOSB and organic stakeholders prompted the NOP to fast-track a guidance memo for accredited certifiers.

Released today, the NOP memo clarified that the three-year transition does apply to hydroponic operations. You can read the memo below or on the USDA website.

This means that new hydroponic operations will have to meet the same transition requirements as soil-based producers. While this is a welcome result and answers some concerns of the organic community, there are still questions we hope will be addressed in the near future. For example, it appears that the NOP will not be questioning the transitions of operations that have already achieved certification without the transition period, essentially grandfathering them in.

Cornucopia will continue to follow these issues closely. In the meantime, interested parties can get more information on the problems “organic” hydroponics poses in Cornucopia’s report, Troubling Waters. To help consumers vote with their forks, Cornucopia’s Hydroponic Buyer’s Guide helps consumers identify the organic crops and brands that likely come from hydroponic sources.

Seek out produce grown in soil and send the message that integrity and transparency are the foundation of organics!

Certification of Organic Crop Container Systems
From: Jennifer Tucker, Ph.D., Deputy Administrator, National Organic Program (NOP)

This memo summarizes the rules that accredited certifying agents (certifiers) must follow when determining the eligibility and compliance of container systems for organic crop certification. In this memo, the term container system includes container, hydroponic, and other plant pot-based systems, with or without soil as the growing media. Certifiers and operations must meet the requirements of the Organic Foods Production Act (OFPA) of 1990, as amended (7 USC §§ 6501-6522), and the USDA organic regulations (7 C.F.R. §§ 205.1-205.699).

The OFPA, Section 6502 defines a certified organic farm as “a farm, or portion of a farm, or site where agricultural products or livestock are produced.” Section 6504 specifies the standards for organic production:

“To be sold or labeled as an organically produced agricultural product under this title, an agricultural product shall:

(1) have been produced and handled without the use of synthetic chemicals, except as otherwise provided in this title; (2) except as otherwise provided in this title and excluding livestock, not be produced on land to which any prohibited substances, including synthetic chemicals, have been applied during the 3 years immediately preceding the harvest of the agricultural products; and (3) be produced and handled in compliance with an organic plan agreed to by the producer and handler of such product and the certifying agent.”

The USDA organic regulations implement these requirements at 7 CFR 205.202, stating that “any field or farm parcel from which harvested crops are intended to be sold, labeled, or represented as “organic,” must…. have had no prohibited substances, as listed in §205.105, applied to it for a period of 3 years immediately preceding harvest of the crop.” This requirement is referred to as the three-year transition period.

The National Organic Program (NOP) has consistently allowed for the certification of container systems as long as the certifier determines that the system complies with OFPA and the USDA organic regulations. This is consistent with 7 USC 6512, which states: “If a production or handling practice is not prohibited or otherwise restricted under this chapter, such practice shall be permitted unless it is determined that such practice would be inconsistent with the applicable organic certification program.”

This memo clarifies that the legal requirements related to the three-year transition period
apply to all container systems built and maintained on land.

Certifiers must consider two questions when certifying container systems:

  • Eligibility: Is the land eligible for organic production?
  • Compliance: Is the system compliant with the USDA organic regulations, and can it maintain compliance?


Consistent with the OFPA and USDA organic regulations, certifiers must confirm that organic crops have been produced and handled without the use of synthetic substances (with the noted exceptions of synthetic substances allowed for organic crop production on the National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances); and must not be produced on land to which prohibited substances have been applied during the three years immediately preceding the harvest of agricultural crops.

This means that certifiers are to assess land use histories for container system sites, just as they would for an in-ground soil-based system. If a prohibited substance was applied to the land at the farm or site within the three-year period before the first organic harvest, then the harvested crops shall not be sold, labeled, or represented as “organic” until the three-year period has passed. If the operation documents that no prohibited substance was applied within that three-year period, then the land may be eligible for container system production, just as it would be for a soil-based system.


  • A container operation wishes to construct a container system on a plot of land and provides evidence that no prohibited substance has been applied within three years before the expected harvest. This land may be eligible for organic production.
  • A container operation is proposed to be constructed on land that was treated with a prohibited substance within the past year. This land would not be eligible for organic production until three years had passed between the application and projected harvest.

Ongoing Compliance

Once certified, certifiers must assess container systems for ongoing compliance with the USDA organic regulations. No prohibited substances may be applied anywhere in the system, including on the land underlying the system, or in the system itself.

Certifiers must evaluate the compliance of the overall system, including maintaining or improving natural resources, supporting nutrient cycling, promoting ecological balance, and conserving biodiversity.

This memo applies to all new container systems that have not yet been certified under the organic program. It is not retroactive to already certified operations and sites. All currently certified container system operations retain their certification as long as they maintain compliance with the regulations.

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