Public Policy: Organic hydroponics lawsuit

Sound Consumer July 2020 | By Aimee Simpson

The battle over organic certification of hydroponically produced crops is now a question for the court system.

Earlier this year the nonprofit Center for Food Safety (CFS) and a coalition of certified organic farmers filed a lawsuit against U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), challenging the USDA’s decision to allow hydroponic operations to be certified organic.

This move follows long debates over the subject, including a petition endorsed by PCC Community Markets last year asking USDA’s National Organic Program (NOP) to revoke its allowance of organic certification for hydroponically produced foods (see “No Hydroponics in Organic”).

The legal basis for the petition (and the lawsuit) lies in provisions of the Organic Foods Production Act (OFPA) that require organic production plans and practices to maintain and promote soil fertility.

“The federal organic law unequivocally requires organic production to promote soil fertility,” said Sylvia Wu, senior attorney at the Center for Food Safety and counsel for plaintiffs. “USDA’s decision to allow mega-hydroponic operations that do nothing with soil to be sold as ‘Organic’ violates the law.”

After USDA denied the petition to reconsider their position on hydroponics last summer, CFS went to work to develop the legal complaint and identify co-plaintiffs that had been impacted by hydroponic production in the organic marketplace.

Advocates argue that organic agriculture, by its very nature, relies on building soil fertility, and that hydroponic crops devalue the organic label and sow confusion.

“Healthy soil is critical to producing nutrient-dense foods that benefit both people and the environment,” said Paul Muller, one of the farm owners of plaintiff Full Belly Farm in Guinda, California, a diversified family farm that has been farmed organically since 1985. “Healthy soil increases and improves the availability of soil nutrients and beneficial microorganisms and enhances the land’s ability to sequester carbon and retain nutrients and water.”

The removal of soil from the equation has also led to other problems and discontinuity in the organic certification system, such as the apparent allowance of some hydroponic and container-based farms to forgo the three-year transition period required before land can be certified as organic, and the use of prohibited substances in areas around growing containers. While never confirmed, these alleged practices of a few producers and certifiers drew near universal outcry from the organic community last spring during the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) meeting in Seattle. The collective demand for clarity on these alleged practices resulted in a guidance memorandum from the NOP clarifying certain requirements but leaving other lingering questions (ams.usda.gov).

Other international organic partners are not aligned with the NOP in its position on hydroponics. Canada and Mexico prohibit hydroponics from organic. The European Parliament also voted to end the organic certification of hydroponic products in April 2018.

Yet, the NOSB has demonstrated the divide on this subject amongst the organic community by recommending to prohibit in 2010, but then failing by a slim margin vote to affirm that prohibition in 2017.

While organic certification of hydroponics has been a divisive issue, we are supportive of the next steps to bring much needed legal direction on the mandates of OFPA and the NOP’s responsibilities in maintaining consistent organic standards.

 

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