Is Hydroponic Food Organic? Organic Farmers Urge USDA to Say No

Is Hydroponic Food Organic? Organic Farmers Urge USDA to Say No

You’ve probably eaten hydroponic food–a tomato or cucumber perhaps, or maybe some aquaponic-grown lettuce. They may have even been promoted as organic, and what’s not organic about food grown without soil? Well, according to a group of organic farmers, everything.

The group is urging the USDA to stop allowing organic certifiers to certify non-soil-based farming methods, such as hydroponic and aquaponic, as organic, as stipulated by a 2010 National Organic Standards Board recommendation to prohibit the practice.

This letter serves as a formal request for the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to institute an immediate moratorium on the organic certification of all new hydroponic and aquaponic operations, until the agency enacts a final rule,” the group of farmers wrote in a letter to Ag secretary Tom Vilsack. “We believe that it is incumbent upon USDA to accept the NOSB’s 2010 recommendations to prohibit soilless hydroponic vegetable production as certified organic. The recommendation specifically states that hydroponic and aeroponic ‘cannot be certified as organic growing methods…’ ”

While hydroponic and aquaponic operations have become quite popular in recent years along with the rise in urban gardens and indoor farm operations, the absence of soil, argue the farmers, makes qualifying these farming methods as organic deceptive and potentially dangerous to our greater food system.

“Soil fertility and soil management are prerequisites for organic certification of crop production,” write the farmers. “Hydroponics systems do not meet this mandate. Both the [Organic Foods Production Act] and the [National Organic Program] final rule describe organic agricultural production as being much more than substituting approved inputs for nonapproved ones.”

While alternative farming methods like growing hydroponic food and aquaponics continue to gain more popularity, soil-based food has always been critical to the human diet; they’re intrinsically linked, providing vital microbes that play an important role in gut health and our immune systems.

Farmers seeking organic certification must undergo rigorous soil testing in order for the farm to become certified organic. With hydroponic and aquaponic systems getting what the farmers say is a free pass around those criteria, it confuses consumers into seeing no distinction between the farming methods and their importance in the food system at large.

“Hydroponic operations on the market do not enhance the biological diversity of plant/soil system or meet other essential requirements inherent in organic soil and ecosystem-based agricultural systems,” write the farmers.

“We must not take trust in organic for granted, either from the organic community as a whole, or from organic agriculture producers,” the farmers concluded. “It took decades to build trust in the organic label, and we must not squander it…”

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Hydroponic lettuce image via Shutterstock

Jill Ettinger

Jill Ettinger is a Los Angeles-based journalist and editor focused on the global food system and how it intersects with our cultural traditions, diet preferences, health, and politics. She is the senior editor for sister websites OrganicAuthority.com and EcoSalon.com, and works as a research associate and editor with the Cornucopia Institute, the organic industry watchdog group. Jill has been featured in The Huffington Post, MTV, Reality Sandwich, and Eat Drink Better. www.jillettinger.com.