Organic Broadcaster


Center for Food Safety sues USDA to take organic label off hydroponically grown food

By Andrew Kimbrell, Center for Food Safety

Organic farmers and consumers understand that the Organic label means more than just growing that food in soil. The Organic label indicates that the organic food improved the fertility of that soil. That’s an important distinction.

Scientists and government agencies agree that improving soil health is a critical piece of climate resiliency. When soils are healthy, they can serve as carbon sinks to store and reduce atmospheric carbon. Healthy soils can also retain more water, reducing runoff and erosion.

While many know that improving soil fertility improves our health and the health of the planet, not everyone knows that it’s also the law. The federal Organic Foods Production Act (OFPA) requires farms to build soil fertility in order to be certified organic. Despite this legal mandate the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) decided to allow hydroponic operations that do not use soil at all to be certified as organic. USDA’s major loophole allows food produced hydroponically from the largest companies to be sold under the Organic label, which guts the very essence of what the label was meant to indicate in the first place. 

Protecting the integrity of the Organic label meant that USDA’s decision needed to be reversed as soon as possible. Center for Food Safety (CFS) drafted and filed a citizen’s petition in 2019 demanding that USDA prohibit hydroponic operations under the National Organic Program. The petition was endorsed by many members of the organic community. Several months later, USDA denied the petition, claiming that OFPA does not require organic farms to improve soil fertility, thereby allowing them to continue to certify hydroponic production as organic.  

Alongside a coalition of many of the country’s oldest certified organic farms and other organic stakeholders, CFS filed a federal lawsuit on March 3, 2020, which challenged the organic certification of hydroponics.1  In addition to CFS, the other plaintiffs in the hydroponics lawsuit are Swanton Berry Farm, Full Belly Farm, Durst Organic Growers, Terra Firma Farm, Jacobs Farm del Cabo, Long Wind Farm, OneCert, and the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association.

Our hydroponics lawsuit gets at the very heart of organic integrity. Improving soil fertility and promoting ecological balance are the bedrock of organic food production. We believe our case is supported by the law and will result in a court ordering USDA to permanently halt organic certification of hydroponic operations—the majority of which take place indoors in sterile warehouses and rely entirely on added nutrient solutions, rather than soil nutrients, to produce crops. 

This lawsuit marks what should be the final chapter in the decade-long battle between USDA and the organic community over the meaning of the Organic label as it applies to hydroponics. The National Organic Standards Board (NOSB), the expert body assigned by Congress to represent the organic community and advise USDA on organic matters, has long held that hydroponic operations do not meet organic standards of production. In 2010, the NOSB recommended that hydroponic operations be prohibited from organic certification2 because soil-building is “the central theme and foundation of organic farming,” which derives its very name from “the practice of maintaining or improving the organic matter (carbon-containing) content of farm soil through various methods and practices.” 3

Rather than heeding to the recommendation of the NOSB, USDA instead skirted the issue, first delaying its decision by creating the Hydroponic and Aquaponic Task Force to further study the issue. When that task force agreed with the fundamental position of the NOSB that soil-less hydroponic operations cannot meet the standards of the National Organic Program, the USDA ignored its own task force. Instead, the USDA issued a blanket statement in a 2018 Organic Insider newsletter stating that the agency has always held the position that hydroponic operations are allowed under USDA Organic regulations.4 USDA’s statement enabled some certifiers to begin certifying large-scale, warehouse hydroponic operations as organic, which in turn allowed these operations to sell their crops under the Organic label, often at significantly reduced prices as compared to organic crops grown in soil by local family farms. 

USDA’s blatant disregard for the legislative history and the voices of the organic community prompted CFS to formally submit the citizen petition in 2019. Both the 2019 citizen petition and the lawsuit filed last month state that hydroponic operations cannot be certified organic because they do not fulfill the national organic standard of contributing to soil health. USDA’s rationale for holding otherwise is arbitrary, capricious, and contrary to our federal organic law.     

Unfortunately, the issue of hydroponics is not the first instance in which these large, corporate “organic” companies have bent USDA to their will and ignored the advice of the NOSB and the organic community to dilute the Organic label. CFS won a groundbreaking lawsuit5 closing a loophole that was permitting some organic operations to use compost contaminated with pesticides in 2016. CFS is also currently leading a lawsuit challenging USDA’s rollback of vital organic rules6 that set standards for organic livestock care—such as adequate space and outdoor access—again in the face of NOSB recommendations to the contrary. 

CFS has been protecting the integrity of the federal organic standard since its creation in the 1990s. As a representative for 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. We will continue to take all legal steps necessary to make sure that USDA, and the National Organic Program it administers, limit certification to soil-based farms that work to improve our precious soils. Sign up at to receive updates and advocacy opportunities in your inbox to protect strong organic standards. 

Andrew Kimbrell is the Executive Director at the Center for Food Safety. CFS provides groundbreaking legal, scientific, and grassroots action to protect and promote safe food and the environment.



1. farmers-and-nonprofits-sue-trumps-usda-over-organic-soil-less-loophole

2. NOSB, Formal Recommendation by NOSB for Rulemaking for Production Standards for Terrestrial Plants in Containers and Enclosures (Apr. 29, 2010), Rec%20Production%20Standards%20for%20Terrestrial%20Plants.pdf

3. Id. at 13.

4. Agric. Marketing Serv., USDA, National Organic Program Organic Insider (Jan. 25, 2018),

5. victory-pesticide-contamination-prohibited-from-organic-production



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