Coalition Files Lawsuit To Prevent Soil-less Agriculture From Receiving Organic Certification

Gina-Marie Cheeseman

The Department of Agriculture stands alone in its allowance of hydroponic operations being certified as organic. A position held, under the leadership of Sonny Perdue, in sharp contrast to the very definition of "organic",

The Center for Food Safety filed a lawsuit with a coalition of organic farms and stakeholders challenging the U.S. Department of Agriculture's decision to allow hydroponic operations to be certified organic. The lawsuit contends that hydroponic operations violate organic standards because they fail to build healthy soils and asks the court to stop the USDA from allowing hydroponically-produced crops to be certified.

The National Organic Standards Board (NOSB), the body assigned by Congress to advise the USDA, has repeatedly asked the USDA to ban organic certification of hydroponics. The NOSB recommended in 2010 that hydroponics be prohibited from organic certification. The USDA continues to ignore that recommendation. In January 2019, the Center for Food Safety filed a legal petition asking the USDA to ban hydroponics from organic certification. The USDA denied the request that same year.

Why hydroponics are not compatible with organic certification

The lawsuit claims that denying the petition violated the Administrative Procedure Act and the Organic Foods Production Act, which requires farmers to build soil fertility to obtain organic certification. Hydroponic crops are grown without soil using water-based nutrient solutions. Synthetic salts are the most common nutrients used in hydroponics, and most of them are not allowed in products certified organic.

“Healthy soil is the foundation of organic farming,” said Andrew Kimbrell, executive director of the Center for Food Safety. “Organic farmers and consumers believe that the Organic label means not just growing food in soil, but improving the fertility of that soil. USDA's loophole for corporate hydroponics to be sold under the Organic label guts the very essence of Organic.”

The basis of organic agriculture is to “feed the soil, not the plant,” Dave Chapman of Long Wind Farm told Northeast Organic Farming Association of Vermont: 

“Organic farming is based on enhancing and cultivating the wonderful balance of the biological systems in the soil. It isn’t just about replacing chemical fertilizers with natural” fertilizers.”

The basis of organic farming is good for climate change mitigation as organic farming reduces carbon emissions. A study published in 2017 found that soil from organic farms is better at sequestering carbon than soil that came from conventional farms. The reason that organic soil holds more carbon is simple: it has more humic acid concentrations, which makes the soil more fertile and allows it to retain water. Hydroponics lacks that ability because it is soil-less agriculture.

One of the objections to hydroponics is that it relies heavily on fertilizers. Oregon Tilth Certified Organic states that hydroponics relies on “large volumes of soluble fertilizers with little nutrient cycling.” “Commercial hydroponic growers will rarely reveal the fertilizers they use,” according to the Texas Organic Research Center. Another objection is that hydroponics use chemicals, which organic producers are prohibited from using.

The U.S. is one of the few countries that will allow hydroponics to be certified organic. Mexico, Canada, Japan, New Zealand, and 24 European countries all ban hydroponic vegetable production to be labeled organic. “The USDA is almost alone in their reinvention of what organic means,” Chapman said.

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