Organic Broadcaster

Organic hydroponics not yet on solid ground

By Audrey Alwell, MOSES

At the fall meeting of the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB), the board narrowly voted down a proposal to prohibit hydroponic systems in organic production—a move that made national headlines as the “downfall” of the National Organic Program. Dramatic headlines aside, the 8-7 vote did not give a clear stamp of approval to organic hydroponics.

“There was not a decisive vote either way,” said Harriet Behar, who is now vice chair of the NOSB, and one of the seven who voted in favor of prohibiting hydroponics. The board’s rules require a “decisive vote,” which means 10-5. “We haven’t given hydroponics the ‘thumbs up’ or changed the status quo,” Behar said.

Hydroponics have been allowed under the current regulation. Certifiers could certify operations as long as the operations use approved inputs for fertility and pest management. This vote allows that to continue. Eight board members voted “no” against prohibiting hydroponics, while seven voted “yes” to prohibit.

CCOF is one of the USDA-accredited certifiers that encouraged the NOSB not to prohibit hydroponic production. The agency has been certifying over 130 container-based operations, which range from water-based systems to substrate container systems.

“Certified organic hydroponic producers, like all organic producers, must use organically approved materials, protect natural resources, and foster biodiversity,” explained Kelly Damewood, CCOF policy director. “I understand the call to reserve the organic label strictly for in-ground systems, but CCOF sees room for innovative, new types of systems when it allows the producer to adapt to their unique site-specific conditions and so long as the producer complies with the standards.”

In its comment to the NOSB prior to the fall meeting, CCOF took the position that hydroponic systems are not inherently better or worse than in-ground systems, pointing out that “a range of factors contribute to the sustainability, quality, and viability of any organic operation.” The agency addressed concerns brought up by the NOSB Crops Subcommittee about hydroponic operations being less sustainable or resilient than in-ground systems. CCOF noted that container systems helped many growers survive California’s six-year drought.

The agency’s comment also countered the claim that hydroponic operations use a lot of energy, explaining that some hydroponic growers use renewable energy. CCOF encouraged the NOSB to develop standards that “push all producers” toward using renewable energy, adding that all producers and handlers should “account for impacts to natural resources through their energy usage.”

“This is a complicated issue, and CCOF has put much thought and time into developing our position,” Damewood said. The agency’s 12-page comment is online at bit.ly/CCOF_HydroponicsComments.

Damewood suggested another approach that the NOSB could take rather than trying to prohibit hydroponics: labeling.

“Continuing to allow hydroponic systems, but requiring a hydroponic labeling statement would provide transparency to consumers while maintaining the viability of organic producers of all backgrounds and growing regions in the U.S.,” she said.

Several NOSB members mentioned a desire for a labeling compromise before voting on this issue at the fall meeting.

MOSA Certified Organic, another USDA-accredited certification agency, certifies a “small number” of hydroponic operations. Kristen Adams, the agency’s certification team leader, said MOSA was “pleased that these innovative systems were not prohibited from organic certification.” Adams called the NOSB’s vote “adequate for now,” adding that many questions remain for certifiers.

“How do we evaluate the use of inputs (nitrogen and fertility inputs) in both hydroponic and land producers, size/scale of all producers, and the use of lights and indoor growing environments?” Adams asked. “We are hoping for continued guidance about on-farm recycling and other sustainability issues in the future.”

That’s exactly what the NOSB Crops Subcommittee is working on for the board’s spring meeting. When the board reconvenes April 25-27 in Tucson, it won’t re-examine a ban on hydroponics and aquaponics (which also was allowed to continue under organic regulation by an 8-7 vote). Rather, NOSB Vice Chair Behar explained, it will review the Crops Subcommittee’s yet-to-be-written proposal on field and greenhouse container production. This proposal will clarify guidelines for materials used in both hydroponic and soil-based container production, Behar said.

“This is a unique form of farming,” she added. “Their methods have not really been fully reviewed. We’re continuing to do that.”

The proposal will address use of artificial light in terms of duration, type, color, and intensity; use of synthetic mulches, including plastic and woven fabric landscape cloth; and, disposal/recycling of crops, pots, and substrate materials at the end of the crop’s production cycle.

The public comment period prior to the NOSB’s spring meeting should open mid-March. The proposal on field and greenhouse container production will be posted on the NOSB meeting page at www.ams.usda.gov/event/national-organic-standards-board-nosb-meeting-tucson-az.

The subcommittee presented the discussion document on these topics at the NOSB’s fall meeting. The next step is writing the proposal and allowing public input before and during the NOSB’s spring meeting.

The USDA-AMS still has not posted transcripts of the NOSB’s fall meeting. These should be posted at www.ams.usda.gov/event/2017-national-organic-standards-board-nosb-meeting.

Audrey Alwell is the communications director for MOSES.

 

From the January | February 2018 Issue

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