Originally published: Forbes
For the growing number of farmers using hydroponic and aquaponic techniques to grow produce, April 19 is a big day. That's when, at a meeting in Denver, the USDA's National Organic Standard Board (NOSB) will decide whether such methods can continue to be eligible for the USDA-organic label. The outcome will determine whether these farmers can target the $39 billion market for organic produce.
Hydroponic farming uses mineral nutrient solutions in water, without soil, to grow plants. Aquaponic methods combine raising fish in tanks with hydroponics.
Whether or not produce grown in this way can be deemed organic has been a point of contention among advocates of what are known as recirculating farms and those of the soil-based persuasion for a few years. The latter say the label is legitimate if produce uses dirt or earth and that the law requires soil be used. The former see soil as a complex microbial environment, tailored to feed plants efficiently.
The Organic Foods Production Act of 1990 states: “An organic plan shall contain provisions designed to foster soil fertility, primarily through the management of the organic content of the soil through proper tillage, crop rotation and manuring.”
For recirculating farmers, "Losing the organic certification would be a devastating blow to their livelihood," says Marianne Cufone, a sustainable agriculture expert and executive director of the Recirculating Farms Coalition. She also contends that the law does not mean that soil is a prerequisite for certification. Plus, because the methods use less water and energy than other techniques, she says, "These farmers are doing good in the world."
In addition, getting certified in the first place indicates a real commitment. According to Cufone, many farmers who meet the criteria for being certified as organic don't go through the process, thanks to its time-consuming and expensive demands.
Opponents take a different position. "Organic regulations clearly state that nurturing the fertility of the soil is an integral part of organic management. Unlabeled, it is impossible for organic consumers to tell what fruits and vegetables are grown in nutrient-rich soil (impacting flavor and our health) or grown in a liquid fertilizer solution, in industrial conditions, and imported from countries like Canada, Mexico and Holland — where it cannot legally be labeled as 'organic'," reads a statement on the web site of The Cornucopia Institute, an organic industry policy group.
Many countries don't allow organic certification of hydroponically grown produce.
For Nate Lewis, farm policy director of the Organic Trade Association, the NOSB and the industry have to come up with some common definitions about the various non-soil-based growing systems in use before anything else can be decided. According to Lewis, there by no means is a consensus at the moment. "Only when we as a stakeholder community come together around what all these terms mean can we move forward," he says.
Olivia Hittner and Michael Hasey run The Farming Fish, a six-year-old, certified organic aquaponic farm in Rogue River, Oregon, that grows lettuce, watercress and other produce, with distribution in 30 grocery stores in the state. They also make products like pesto. About one-quarter acre of their 40-acre farm is devoted to the aquaponic system, which sits at the top of a slope, so that the sludge produced when it's cleaned is pumped down to a compost area to be used for their grow crops. "It's like an Aztec garden where everything is terraced and moving downhill," says Hasey.