The National Organic Standards Board, like the organic industry, was divided on the issue of soilless growing, but the votes went in favor of continuing to allow it in organic. Here's a breakdown of the arguments from both sides.

Melody Meyer, Vice President of Policy and Industry Relations

November 2, 2017

5 Min Read
NOSB rejects proposal to prohibit hydroponic growing in organic standards

The NOSB meeting opened with the standard introductions and agency updates. There was a palpable tension as the soil and the soilless camps huddled in separate groups outside. The topic looming large and passionately at this meeting is whether to prohibit various modes of growing outside the soil—organic hydroponics.

The NOSB members have an amazing workload. Even before the meeting, they had already poured over 2000 written comments. A full 13.5 hours will be dedicated to listening to oral comments. It’s an arduous and transparent process. This is what makes Organic the gold standard.

Miles McEvoy, the National Organic Program’s (NOP) long-standing deputy administrator who recently retired, was conspicuously and for the first time in many years absent. Acting Deputy Administrator Ruihong Guo, Ph.D. will fill his role until a replacement is hired.

Despite the fact that there are 35 materials up for sunset at this meeting, the overwhelming amount of oral comments addressed the hydroponics issues.

While we have common ground on things such as GMO exclusion, there are many cracks in the organic mosaic—the public comments reflected the divisions. A good majority of all the commenters at this meeting were in support of prohibiting hydroponic production methods. Many were led by organic veterans who were part of the very formation of the organic standards.

Several past NOSB members weighed in that organic is all about soil. “Conventional farmers are beginning to talk about soil health and now organic is talking about growing without the soil.” The arguments were many and fervent from a variety of stakeholders.

“We are tricking and deceiving consumers with organic hydroponics, and large corporations are just chasing and riding the coattails of the organic label. Hydroponic is a shortcut, and these methods have been wrongly certified. Container and hydroponics don’t have to wait three years to be certified. Global warming can be combated with the ground beneath my feet, not hydroponics. It’s just downright harmful to the organic seal!”

The Keep The Soil In Organic members wore black T-shirts stating such and presented a petition where 86,000 citizens had signed “no to hydroponics in organic.” What we do to the Earth, we do to ourselves, and the current hydroponic situation deceives consumers. They marched in protest down the street during the lunch hour.

More radical voices demanded that, “this meeting is your chance to stop the corruption of organic by the USDA/NOP.”

A member representing IFOAM traveled 20 hours from the EU to give a three-minute comment to rally against soilless organic production. She suggested their inclusion could encourage IFOAM to urge renegotiation of the equivalency agreement between the EU and US.

There were fewer proponents in attendance that wanted to continue to allow the full spectrum of hydroponic and container methods in organic. Their arguments were equally impassioned.

“The inclusion of hydroponic methods creates environmental stewardship while providing organic food to more organic customers. Hydroponic growers are champions of innovations and produce clean food in a sustainable way. We use no pesticides, herbicides and foster biodiversity in their local area. Many of these systems use substantially less water.”

The vast majority of container growers would not be able to meet the limits of the nitrogen feeding requirements in the crops subcommittee proposal. If enforced, these requirements would halt progress and productivity and could create excess nitrogen run-off as a result.

“Soil growers are not required to control their phosphorous and nitrogen inputs, and this would create a double standard. The case was made that the carbon footprint is actually less because the food is usually consumed locally where it is produced.”

“What about organic seafood and fish? They have nothing to do with soil. Will those be excluded from the organic seal?”

“If prohibited, hundreds of hydroponic growers across the spectrum of growing methods could face economic devastation. These are long-time urban and rural producers, small- and large-scale producers currently certified that will suffer.”

There were a few calls of compromise and middle ground.

We heard from a 45-year grower of organic wine grapes, one of the groundbreaking pioneers in organic agriculture. He told his story, how he built his soil over the years using kelp, trace minerals, compost and cover crops. Yet he is willing and ready to accept innovation in the organic landscape. As long as people want to have an organic alternative, we should let them have it. Let’s expand organic to as many tables as we can.

CCOF developed a detailed proposal of standards for all types of soilless growing systems. They suggest that instead of focusing on inputs as the defining characteristics of various production systems, the NOSB should focus more on the outcomes. Minimum soil biology diversity should be applied to all container and hydroponic systems to ensure that soil biology remains an essential element of all organic systems. Selecting a one-size-fits-all strategy will not work for all crops and commodities.

The division in opinions to prohibit or allow seems to fall within regional lines. For the most part, in the east, where deep dark soil and plentiful water exist, soil is the soul of organic farmers. In the west, where rocky, sandy terrain dominates within more arid conditions, other innovative forms of organic agriculture are embraced.

After two long days of comments, the full board voted on all the proposals. By a divided margin of eight to seven, they rejected the proposals to make hydroponic, aquaponic and container growing prohibited in organic production. They also rejected the proposal to create prescriptive nitrogen feeding requirements in container growing systems

They did, almost unanimously, vote to prohibit aeroponics in organic practices, but to my knowledge no one is certifying these types of growing methods.

Today the NOSB plans to further discuss ideas on labeling these out-of-soil production methods.

This vote will certainly not end the discussion. With the fundamental split reflected in the board vote and in the community, there is a clear sense that no one really won .

Let’s hope this deep-seated rift does not tear asunder our small and passionate organic trade and movement.

Melody Meyer is vice president of policy and industry relations at United Natural Foods. This post originally appeared on her blog, Organic Matters.

About the Author(s)

Melody Meyer

Vice President of Policy and Industry Relations, United Natural Foods Inc.

Melody Meyer is the vice president of policy and industry relations for United Natural Foods (UNFI). She is responsible for communicating and educating all stakeholders on critical industry issues and is active in advocating for fair and equitable funding for organic agriculture.

Melody’s career spans several decades in the organic and natural foods industry, including nine years of international trade and development. She began her career in 1976 working in an Iowa Natural Food Cooperative. Her early years in the retail segment of the burgeoning organic industry provided valuable experience buying from local farmers and providing fair returns in order to increase their organic acreage. This experience led to a lifelong dream of changing the way people eat and farm.

Melody founded her own business in 1995, Source Organic, which joined organic producers all over the country directly with national retailers and wholesalers. Source Organic was eventually acquired by Albert’s Organics (a division of United Natural Foods UNFI) in 2001 and it became the procurement department for all organic fresh produce purchased for the company. Her dream was being realized on a national scale!

In 2004 she began importing directly from small banana producers in Latin America. They were uniting and developing self-governed organizations enabling the small producers to export internationally for the first time. This international business provided a new level of prosperity, allowing the communities to increase much-needed social systems and infrastructure.

She has been deeply involved in introducing fair trade certification to growers in Latin America with Fair Trade USA and FLO.  The fair trade premiums are managed by self-governed worker groups to provide education, reforestation, access to clean water and health care.

Melody is proud to be the current executive director of the UNFI Foundation, which is dedicated to funding nonprofit organizations that promote organic and sustainable agriculture and healthy food systems. Priorities of the foundation include organic research, protecting biodiversity of seeds, promoting transparent labeling and educating consumers on healthy food choices.

She is serving her second term on the Board of Directors for the Organic Trade Association (OTA).  She also sits on the California Department of Food and Agriculture Organic Products Advisory Committee (COPAC).

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