Farm Calls: A Grower Questions Why Hydroponics are Excluded from Organic Certification Labeling

This Farm Call comes from Rutgers SEBS Dean, Robert Goodman – yes, even Deans get calls from growers.
A New Jersey grower, who raises crops hydroponically, asks,

“Why can’t I get my greens and herbs labeled Certified Organic?
It seems there is a hang up with the issue.”

hydroponicsThe answer to his question reveals serious dysfunction in the governing bodies that dictate farming practices and how pop culture molds public opinion through fear.

  • Why would a farmer seek a Certified Organic label?
  • Flawed Definitions & Illogical Policy
  • Why Hydroponics Won’t be Deemed Certified Organic by the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB)
  • What can Growers Do?

Why would a farmer seek a Certified Organic product label?

Hydroponics (specifically soil-less Nutrient Film Technique) represents practices consumers associate with sustainable local safe food of high culinary quality. It is highly regarded worldwide with many recognized benefits such as: water conservation, lower wasted nutrient costs, no unintended nutrient pollution risk, lower pest pressures from exclusion, easier crop harvest, and stable, high yields.

So why would a farmer be compelled to seek additional certification?

By way of pop culture, the label “organic” has taken on implications beyond the definition; implications about improved human health and safety. Consumers that have lost connection with farmers and the land are fearful of our food supply. The media propagates this fear, so that despite the fact that food grown in the US is of high quality, consumers are searching for assurances that the food they buy is safe.

The organic label has become a proxy for these qualities even though there is little evidence that organically grown crops differ from more conventional methods in terms of safety, health effects, nutrient value, or taste (Bourn & Prescott, 2002; Dangour, et al, 2009; Kouba, 2003). The National Organic Program which administers the Certified Organic label does not define, measure, or test the results organic methods have on these product attributes.

However, consumers harbor the perception that organically grown foods have these qualities and ask their retailers to provide them. Retailers, then, are under pressure to carry products labeled organic and buy from growers who provide products with the organic label. The label has become a marketing tool so powerful that our farmer realizes that to be excluded from its use creates a bias that threatens farm viability.

Flawed Definitions & Illogical Policy

Organic Certification is a “truth in labeling” marketing scheme defining allowable processes focused on resource cycling. It does not assure product quality outcome for consumers.

Definitions from the USDA and NOSB which advises the USDA on Organic Certification:

USDA 2002 meaning of Certified Organic: “Organic is a labeling term that indicates that the food or other agricultural product has been produced through approved methods that integrate cultural, biological, and mechanical practices that foster cycling of resources, promote ecological balance, and conserve biodiversity. Synthetic fertilizers, sewage sludge, irradiation, and genetic engineering may not be used.”

NOSB guidance definition: “Organic agriculture is an ecological production management system that promotes and enhances biodiversity, biological cycles, and soil biological activity. It emphasizes the use of management practices in preference to the use of off-farm inputs, taking into account that regional conditions require locally adapted systems. These goals are met, where possible, through the use of cultural, biological, and mechanical methods, as opposed to using synthetic materials to fulfill specific functions within the system.”

Decades of arguments surround the terms “organic” and “synthetic” used in these definitions so we won’t go into that here. Suffice it to say, the use of these terms in the definitions is unfortunate and has lead to a policy framework that is illogical.

For example, initially the use of the inorganic industrial chemical chlorine was disallowed for use under the organic certification label. The century old benefits of using chlorine for disinfecting and sanitizing in agriculture were opposed. It is understandable that a definition of organic agriculture including the requirement of promoting resource cycling and disallowing synthetic materials would exclude chlorine. Thankfully, after vigorous debate it was agreed that chlorine should be allowed in the safe handling of organic food due to legitimate and serious concerns for public health and safety.

Why Hydroponics Won’t be Certified Organic by the National Organic Standards Board

The organic certification of hydroponic producers, and various other kinds of soil-less agriculture has been a topic of dispute going on at USDA for over 10 years.

There are no Certified Organic hydroponic operations in our state. There are some inspectors who have certified hydroponic production allowing the marketing label (mainly in California). Theoretically, a NJ farmer might be able to independently pay thousands of dollars to fly such an inspector here – not a cost effective option.

However, the likelihood that certification even in this manner will be available in the future is slim. This is because after decade long discussions at NOSB on soil-less growing systems, their recent public minutes and discussion on the topic point to hydroponics being excluded without exception.

The simple, yet disturbing, answer to our grower’s question is this: Hydroponics does not involve soil. It therefore cannot promote soil biological activity. Thus, it cannot be certified organic. While other issues are used to cloud the argument (such as nutrient sources), this is the crux of the NOSB stand against hydroponics.

What can growers do? Talk to your customers!

New Jersey growers produce healthy products no matter how they might be labeled. This includes hydroponic operations which represent total knowledge and documented control of production inputs and offer a much needed method of urban food production. However, due to media bias it is unlikely that consumers will come to recognize that organic certification does not address human health and safety but instead means: grown without man-made inputs except for the ones chosen using a byzantine methodology.

Growers are recognizing that complying with Certified Organic regulations are unnecessarily burdensome and often in conflict with other government food safety directives. Many are opting out of the process, communicating the differences to their customers, and marketing their products with more straight-forward labels. This is probably the best course of action rather than attempting to get involved with the flawed system currently in place.

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