Hydroponics and the Organic Label (Part Four)

By Glenn Kern, CFSA Organic Policy Coordinator

Welcome, readers, to this fourth and final installment of CFSA’s blog series about hydroponics and the USDA Organic label.

(Part one, two, and three.)

By now, those of you who have been monitoring the hydroponics debate will have learned that at the beginning of November, the National Organic Standards Board delivered what has been widely reported as a “win” for proponents of allowing hydroponics under the Organic label. This final post will discuss what occurred at the NOSB meeting in Jacksonville, the regulatory effect of the Board’s decision, and possible next steps for the NOP and NOSB.

Part Four

The vote 

As discussed previously, in preparation for the Fall 2017 NOSB meeting, the Crops Subcommittee presented the full Board with four separate proposals related to container-based growing systems: (1) to prohibit aeroponics from Organic certification; (2) to define hydroponics as a container-based growing method wherein crops are supplied with more than 20% of their required nitrogen from liquid feeding and more than 50% of their required nitrogen from fertilizer added after planting, and to prohibit such systems from Organic certification; (3) to define aquaponics as a sub-type of hydroponics and to prohibit such systems from Organic certification ; and (4) to allow container-based production systems to become certified only if both the 20% and 50% nitrogen limits are not exceeded.

The week before the NOSB meeting, the Board heard six hours of public comments from stakeholders during online conference calls. Several days later in Jacksonville, the Board heard another seven hours of comments from concerned farmers, handlers, certifiers, industry associations, consumers, and other advocates who were present. These thirteen hours of live comments were in addition to more than 2,300 written comments submitted by stakeholders from across the country. Not all of these comments focused on hydroponics—there were dozens of other regulatory issues on the NOSB’s agenda in Jacksonville—but many did.

Proponents of Organic hydroponics urged the Board to reject the Crops Subcommittee’s proposals. Many of these commenters touted hydroponic farms as efficient systems that use less water than traditional field-based operations, minimize fertilizer runoff, create opportunities for growing fresh food in urban areas and, relatedly, present a viable option for aspiring farmers who don’t have access to farmland. Proponents also pointed out that hydroponic systems can be operated without the use of synthetic pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers which are prohibited under the USDA Organic regulations.

Some hydroponic farmers who were present in Jacksonville told the Board that the 20% and 50% limits on nitrogen were unworkable for their operations. Others—including some container farmers who produce berries in compost or soil-based growing media—said that while their systems could potentially comply with these nitrogen limits, compliance would come at the cost of increased nutrient leaching (due to an excess of soluble nitrogen being present at times when plants would be incapable of sufficient uptake) or huge increases in labor costs (due to the need to replace liquid feeding with compost amendments). Some container farmers argued that the 20% and 50% limits were arbitrary and not capable of enforcement by certifying agents—arguments with which some certifying agents agree.

Opponents of allowing hydroponics under the Organic label focused their arguments on the importance of soil in organic farming. Some pointed to specific provisions of the Organic Foods Production Act and the USDA Organic regulations which are interpreted by many farmers and Organic stakeholders as requiring in-ground production, soil tillage, and crop rotation. Many soil farmers spoke about the history of organic agriculture and the soil-focused philosophical heritage from which the USDA Organic program was created. They objected to what they view to be a dishonest attempt by hydroponic farmers to take advantage of the market demand for Organic food without committing themselves to the underlying principles of organic agriculture.

In contrast to the assertions by hydroponic growers that container-based systems are resource efficient, some advocates of soil farming pointed out that hydroponic systems often require large amounts of electricity and lack carbon sequestration capability. Soil farmers also argued that, in contrast to the letter and spirit of OFPA, hydroponic farms are not capable of increasing on-farm biodiversity in comparable ways to traditional organic farms.

In the end, the Board voted 14 to 0, with one abstention, in favor of the proposal to prohibit aeroponics. But as to hydroponics, aquaponics, and nutrient limits for container production, the Board voted 8 to 7 against the Crops Subcommittee’s proposals. Board members who voted against the Crops Subcommittee’s proposals gave varying reasons for their decisions, ranging from the importance of food access in urban areas to a concern that the proposed 20% and 50% nitrogen limits were arbitrary. Those who voted in favor of prohibiting hydroponics stated their positions in different ways, but they were united in their belief that the Organic regulations should not be interpreted oramended to allow for soilless production systems.

What it means 

 

To be clear, the Board’s vote to reject the Crops Subcommittee’s proposal is not equivalent to a vote in favor of allowing hydroponics. There was no proposal to expressly allow hydroponics on the Board’s agenda and, consequently, no recommendation for pro-hydroponic rulemaking was possible. As explained previously in this blog series, the current position of the USDA National Organic Program is that OFPA and the Organic regulations do not categorically prohibit hydroponic or other container-based systems.

The result of the Board’s vote is that, with the exception of aeroponics, the NOSB will not be making any new rulemaking recommendations to the NOP with respect to container-based systems.

Rather, a hydroponic system may be certified Organic if an accredited third-party certifier determines that it complies with all applicable provisions of OFPA and the Organic regulations. Historically, some certifiers have been willing to approve hydroponic operations while others have not, and the NOP has not offered certifiers guidance in making this determination.

The result of the Board’s vote is that, with the exception of aeroponics, the NOSB will not be making any new rulemaking recommendations to the NOP with respect to container-based systems. Thus, the NOP is left with the Board’s standing 2010 recommendation that hydroponic operations—as therein defined—should be prohibited from obtaining Organic certification. However, the NOP previously determined that the 2010 recommendation was too incomplete to be relied on for comprehensive rulemaking. Consequently, individual certifying agencies will (for now) continue to decide whether a particular hydroponic or aquaponic growing system is eligible for Organic certification.

The upshot of the Board’s vote is that the regulatory uncertainty and inconsistency for hydroponics under the Organic label has not been resolved. Nonetheless, the Board’s unwillingness to recommend a categorical ban on hydroponic operations does signal to container-based growers who currently market their products as certified Organic that they may continue to do so without fear of imminent regulatory changes affecting their businesses. This relative certainty is the “win” for hydroponics that the Board delivered.

Next steps 

Could the NOP proceed with rulemaking despite the failure of the NOSB to provide a recommendation at the Fall 2017 meeting? In theory, yes. Will the NOP do this? Probably not.

The NOP, not the NOSB, is responsible for deciding whether and when to propose new Organic regulations. OFPA and the Federal Advisory Committee Act require that the NOP consult with the NOSB on issues related to the implementation of the law, and the NOP has fulfilled this statutory obligation with respect to hydroponics. Furthermore, the NOP is not limited to issuing regulations that align with recommendations from the NOSB. However, given the degree of influence that the NOSB’s recommendations have historically commanded, the divisive nature of the hydroponics issue, and the NOP’s previous inaction in the absence of a comprehensive recommendation on hydroponics from the NOSB, it seems unlikely that the NOP will proceed to rulemaking.

Some Organic stakeholders and NOSB members have suggested that a separate “Organic Hydroponic” label may be a possible long-term solution. At the very least, this option would require the NOP to issue new regulations containing firm definitions and standards for hydroponic production, as well as requirements that producers and handlers disclose the use of this production method on applicable products. This option would provide consumers with information about the origins or their food without prohibiting container-based systems from obtaining certification. Although the 2016 Hydroponics Task Force addressed the feasibility of an alternative labeling option in its final report, the NOSB itself has not evaluated this option as part of its work agenda. That may change in 2018.

Needless to say, whichever direction the NOP and NOSB go from here, we’ll keep you posted!

We hope this has been a helpful discussion, and as always, don’t hesitate to get in touch with me at glenn@carolinafarmstewards.org with questions or comments!

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