Inside Organics Blog

Time has come to decide organic status of hydroponics

By Harriet Behar, MOSES

The USDA organic regulations are not always clear in describing what type of production can carry the organic label. Hydroponic crop produc­tion is one of these gray areas where inconsis­tent implementation of the organic regulation causes frustration and confusion. For hydropon­ics, the question lies in whether or not organic production is based solely on the substitution of organically approved inputs for those that are not approved, or on the whole system used to produce the crop. The USDA organic regulation has the following definition:

Organic production. A production system that is managed in accordance with the Act and regulations in this part to respond to site-specific conditions by integrating cultural, biological, and mechanical practices that foster cycling of resources, promote ecological balance, and con­serve biodiversity.

The statement “managed in accordance with the Act and regulations” addresses the use of organically approved inputs. The second part of the definition addresses activities used on the organic farm that result in environmentally ben­eficial agricultural systems. For some farmers and consumers, it is easiest to view organic agri­culture as a system that does not use toxic syn­thetic materials. However, organic agriculture is much more than that. While it is more difficult to describe succinctly, organic agriculture is a system that promotes soil and ecological health, not just the avoidance of toxic materials.

Hydroponics is a crop production system that does not use soil. Instead, nutrients are dissolved in water and plants are floated at the water’s surface with roots in the water or are in an inert media such as perlite or rock wool. This type of system is growing in popularity, since this highly controlled environment has the capability of producing cosmetically high quality products and higher yields than can be produced in a soil-based system. Hydroponic producers promote this system as being sustainable. They state that less water is used than in terrestrial growing systems and that nutrients are not leached or lost from the system. The nutrient-rich water is continuously recirculated, with monitors to ensure sufficient, but not excessive nutrients are supplied to the crop’s roots.

Most hydroponic systems use highly soluble synthetic sources of nutrients, and for many years, it was almost impossible to find the right types of natural nutrient sources that would be acceptable under the National Organic Program (NOP). However, these challenges have been overcome and there are now hydroponic growing systems certified as organic in the U.S.

The problem is a lack of consistency in the organic certification process, with some certifiers approving hydroponic operations and others not. The NOP has not provided any guidance on this issue, and has allowed this inconsistency to con­tinue. The NOP has even promoted an organic hydroponic operation in a past news release.

It is important to note that Canada does not allow hydroponically grown crops to be sold under the organic label, and USDA organic hydroponic products are not allowed to be exported to Canada as part of our organic equiv­alency agreement. The reason behind this is the belief that organic agriculture is rooted in crop production based on healthy soils.

As most organic farmers know, a biologically active, living soil provides more than just basic nutrition to the plant. The complex interaction of soil microbes, fungi, bacteria, and other liv­ing organisms help create healthy plant roots. Beneficial soil organisms can protect plants by outcompeting problematic organisms. A functional organic farm promotes biodiversity, including wildlife habitat, protection of our natu­ral resources and more. This aspect of organic agriculture is also part of the reason why many consumers are willing to pay more for organic— they see the connection between organic agri­cultural systems and the greater health of the overall environment we all share. While con­ventional agriculture may see the soil’s main purpose as a mechanism for holding the plant upright, the basic philosophy behind organic farming holds a deep reverence for the billions of living organisms in the soil and a desire to continually improve the complex interactive ecosystem beneath our feet.

Hydroponic proponents using greenhouses point out that organic growers use greenhouses for growing crops in soil. However, these organic growers typically have field-grown crops as well, where their crop rotations, soil building, and diversity provide ecological benefits. Hydroponic growing is limited to a very controlled environ­ment, with many urban hydroponic operations using grow lights in formerly abandoned ware­houses. While it’s true that these warehouses provide locally grown food to inner city areas or urban “food deserts,” it is very questionable if this system really meets the philosophy or the letter of the organic law, even if approved organic materials are used.

In 2010, after more than eight years of public input, the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) presented a final recommendation to the NOP for proposed standards for organic greenhouse production. That document states:

Hydroponics, the production of plants in nutrient rich solutions or moist inert material, or aeroponics, a variation in which plant roots are suspended in air and continually misted with nutrient solution, have their place in production agriculture, but certainly cannot be classified as certified organic growing methods due to their exclusion of the soil-plant ecology intrinsic to organic farming systems and USDA/NOP regu­lations governing them.

In the same document, they refer to an earlier recommendation where the board recognized there may be a place for hydroponics in certain situations:

Hydroponic and other soil-less systems for crop production are limited to the following categories:

•  Production of higher plants that are naturally aquatic species.

•  Production of algal organisms such as spirulina.

•  Production systems that utilize compost as a growing media.

In the past few years, aquaponics, which is a blending of aquaculture and hydroponics, has also grown tremendously. In this system, fish are grown in tanks and bacteria are used to break down the waste products from the fish to feed plants grown in water. This could have some applicability to organic agriculture. However, there has not been an organic community-wide discussion about the organic status of aquaponics.

The NOP should work with the NOSB and the organic community as a whole, to clarify the USDA organic standards on hydroponic and aquaponic agricultural products, clarify­ing which products, if any, could use the USDA organic seal. There should be consistency between certifiers and an understanding that perhaps not every production system would meet the spirit or letter of the organic law. All organic producers have a stake in having a consistent and clear organic label when used on any prod­uct. When there is confusion or misunderstand­ing in one area, it reflects negatively on the entire program.

Harriet Behar is a MOSES Organic Specialist. She serves on state and national committees, and is a voice for farmers on policy matters.

From the July | August 2014 Issue

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Comments

July 1, 2014

I would argue that “organic” is not about healthy soil, it is about ‘managing life forms in a symbiotic relationship for the production of food, feed and fiber.’  Fertilizers and pesticides, regardless of their source, are short term, maybe cost effective means of covering up bad management for yet, another year.  I have managed a hydroponic greenhouse and nothing about it is organic.  The Canadians got it right.

Mike

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