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!

Hydroponics and the Organic Label (Part Two)

By Glenn Kern, CFSA Organic Policy Coordinator

(Part onethree, and four.)

(A) What exactly are hydroponic production systems?

As noted above, hydroponic production is one of multiple different methods of commercial crop production that are distinct from the traditional practice of growing plants to maturity in the open ground. The NOSB and NOP have long recognized the need to define and distinguish between these less traditional growing methods in order to determine whether some should be prohibited under the Organic label.

Though less prevalent on a commercial scale than they are today, hydroponic production systems were in use in the United States when the USDA Organic regulations were being drafted in the late 1990s, and both the NOSB and the NOP discussed them in the context of the Organic label. The final regulations, published by the NOP in December 2000, did not explicitly regulate hydroponics, and supplemental information published by the NOP during the rulemaking process indicated that allowing for the possibility of rule-compliant hydroponic systems was an intentional choice.

At present, a deepening problem of regulatory inconsistency demands the urgent need for additional clarification from the NOP. Without USDA rules that expressly address hydroponic and other container-based production methods, some USDA-accredited Organic certifying agencies have been willing to approve these non-traditional methods, while other certifying agencies have not.

What follows is a basic typological framework for the production systems that the NOSB and NOP are currently attempting to define and classify. Keep in mind that the definitions listed here are not found in existing law or USDA regulations—rather, they are proposed definitions from the NOSB and are by no means set in stone. It should also be stressed that within each category listed below there are in fact multiple distinct production models in use by commercial growers. An analysis of these many individual models is beyond the scope of this blog post. For readers who want to learn more about the range of container-based production systems being used today, I recommend starting with the 2016 Organic Hydroponic and Aquaponic Task Force report, which will be mentioned again in Part Three and is available here.

Without USDA rules that expressly address hydroponic and other container-based production methods, some USDA-accredited Organic certifying agencies have been willing to approve these non-traditional methods, while other certifying agencies have not.

(i) Container-based growing systems

In 2010, the NOSB made a formal recommendation to the NOP regarding the use of container-based production systems. As defined in that recommendation, a “container” is “any vessel and associated equipment used to house growing media and the complete root structure of terrestrial plants and to prevent the roots from contacting the soil or surface beneath the vessel, such as, but not limited to, pots, troughs, plastic bags, floor mats. etc.” The Crops Subcommittee’s pending proposals on container-based systems for the Fall 2017 meeting in Jacksonville use the same definition.

In other words, container-based growing systems involve growing plants somewhere other than in the ground. However, the “growing media” used in container-based commercial systems can vary significantly. For example, the containers could be filled with soil or a soil-and-compost mix. Alternatively, the containers could be filled with a completely liquid growing media. As will be made clear below, in the latter case, the production system would be considered both “container-based” and, by necessity, “hydroponic.”

For the purposes of this typological framework, the category of “container-based growing systems” encompasses each of the following sub-categories, all of which involve the production of crops in “vessels” used to prevent plant roots “from contacting the soil or surface beneath….” However, it’s important to note that there are container-based growing systems which do not fit into any of the categories listed below.

(ii) Hydroponic growing systems

At the Spring 2017 NOSB meeting, the Crops Subcommittee presented to the full Board a discussion document that included a proposed definition of “hydroponics.” The full Board did not vote on the proposed definition, and therefore no formal recommendation was made to the NOP regarding how such systems should be defined in the USDA Organic regulations.

Consequently, there is no current NOP definition of hydroponics. The NOSB has produced three slightly different definitions of hydroponics in recent years:

(a) In 2010, the NOSB made a formal rulemaking recommendation to the NOP in which “hydroponics” was defined as “[t]he production of normally terrestrial, vascular plants in nutrient rich solutions or in an inert, porous, solid matrix bathed in nutrient rich solutions.”

(b) In a Fall 2016 proposal, which neither accepted nor rejected by the full Board, the Crops Subcommittee defined “hydroponics” as “the growing of normally terrestrial vascular plants in mineral nutrient solutions with or without an inert growing media to provide mechanical support.”

(c) The definition of “hydroponics” presented by the Crops Subcommittee at the Spring 2017 meeting is “[t]he production of normally terrestrial, vascular plants in nutrient-rich solutions, or in a medium of inert or biologically recalcitrant solid materials to which a nutrient solution is added.” This definition encompasses both pure liquid hydroponic systems, in which plant roots are actually suspended in liquid, and “aggregate” hydroponic systems, in which plant roots are suspended in some sort of inert or recalcitrant substrate and are “bathed” in a liquid nutrient solution.

The Crops Subcommittee’s Fall 2017 proposal on hydroponics uses a definition that is notably different from the previous three. Rather than focusing on the type of growing media being used or the plants being cultivated, for the first time in a formal proposal, the Subcommittee has defined a hydroponic system according to the percentage of a crop’s total nitrogen requirement that is supplied using liquid and other outside fertilizer sources, as follows:

(d) “Hydroponics (for the purposes of this proposal)…[is defined as] any container production system that does not meet the standard of a limit of 20% of the plants’ nitrogen requirement being supplied by liquid feeding, and a limit of 50% of the plants’ nitrogen requirement being added to the container after the crop has been planted.”

Many production systems that allow plant roots to float freely in liquid nutrient solutions, which by design depend solely on this method for delivery of fertilization, would clearly fall within this definition. However, even systems that use some amount of soil or compost as growing media but which exceed the percentages listed above would be considered hydroponic.

(iii) Aquaponic growing systems

As with “hydroponics,” the NOSB has produced multiple definitions of “aquaponics” in recent years:

(a) The 2010 rulemaking recommendation from the NOSB described aquaponics as “systems [that] combine the features of both hydroponics and aquaculture. This is done by recirculating the effluent from fish tanks and using it as a source of nutrients for vegetables grown hydroponically, using sand or gravel as media. Nitrifying bacteria convert the fish effluent, primarily ammonia, to nitrite and then nitrate, which the plants can use.”

(b) In its Fall 2016 proposal to the full Board, the Crops Subcommittee defined “aquaponics” as “[a] system in which plants are grown in waste water from aquatic organisms, which in turn purify the water.”

(c) In its Spring 2017 discussion document and Fall 2017 proposal, the Crops Subcommittee has defined “aquaponics” as “a recirculating hydroponic system in which plants are grown in nutrients originating from aquatic animal waste water, which may include the use of bacteria to improve availability of these nutrients to the plants.  The plants improve the water quality by using the nutrients, and the water is then recirculated back to the aquatic animals.” The Fall 2017 Proposal thus incorporates the new percentage-based definition of hydroponics.

Although the use of aquatic animals—usually fish—to produce available nutrients distinguishes aquaponic systems from other hydroponic systems, aquaponics is typically thought of as a subtype of hydroponics.

(iv) Aeroponic growing systems    

“Aeroponics” is defined the same way in the Fall 2017 Crops Subcommittee proposal, Spring 2017 Subcommittee discussion document, the 2016 Subcommittee proposal, and the 2010 NOSB rulemaking recommendation: “a variation of hydroponic [production] in which plant roots are suspended in air and misted with nutrient solution.”

(B) The current regulatory situation 

According to §6512 of the Organic Foods Production Act (“Other production and handling practices”), “if a production or handling practice is not prohibited or otherwise restricted under [OFPA], such practice shall be permitted unless it is determined that such practice would be inconsistent with the applicable organic certification program.” Any such determination would be in the form of rulemaking by the National Organic Program.

As noted by the NOSB Crops Subcommittee in its Spring 2017 discussion document, “[t]he National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) has taken up the issue of hydroponics several times in the past and has made several recommendations to the National Organic Program. To date, the NOP has not undertaken rulemaking based on any of the NOSB recommendations.”

Consequently, the current regulatory position of the NOP is that hydroponic production systems are eligible for Organic certification if production is accomplished in full compliance with OFPA and the USDA Organic regulations. However, without additional regulations or guidance from the NOP spelling out what exactly “full compliance” means in the context of hydroponic or other container-based production systems, certifying agencies have been left to make the determination themselves. As noted above, some certifying agencies have concluded that hydroponics can be Organic, while others have concluded that it cannot.

According to a 2016 survey of Organic certifiers conducted by the NOP, a total of 17 agencies responded that they were willing to certify hydroponic and aquaponic operations (out of a total of 80 certifiers accredited by the USDA). At that time, there were 30 certified hydroponic operations, 22 certified aquaponic operations, and 69 “other” certified container-based operations (some of which might be classified as hydroponic under the Fall 2017 definitions).

Though opinions about hydroponics vary among members of the NOSB and the wider community of Organic producers, handlers, and consumers, everyone seems to be in agreement that the regulatory uncertainty surrounding certification of hydroponics is confusing and risks undermining the public’s trust in the Organic label. Yet, counterbalancing the need for the NOP to develop additional regulations quickly is the need for such regulations to be comprehensive, well-researched, and consistent with the spirit and text of OFPA.

Coming up next week

Please don’t hesitate to email me at glenn@carolinafarmstewards.org with comments or questions, and thanks very much to those of you who have already gotten in touch to voice your opinion. If you want to know more about hydroponics and the Organic label, make sure to stay tuned for next week’s post, listed below.

Part Three : October 24  

  • What arguments are being made in opposition to and in support of allowing hydroponics to be certified Organic? 
  • What have the NOSB and the NOP done in the past to address this issue?