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National Organic Board punts hydroponic decision back to committee

By a vote of 10-4 the National Organic Standards Board sent the decision whether hydroponic grown produce can continue to be certified as organic back to committee for further work.

That decision was not unexpected and was applauded by some as the prudent step to take. In fact, prior to the vote at a Nov. 18 meeting of the board in St. Louis, Nathaniel Lewis, farm policy director for the Organic Trade Association, told The Produce News that the proposal on hydroponic production was incomplete and more work needed to be done.

In its pre-meeting comments to the board on the proposal, OTA said more clarity was needed as well a “clear set of definitions around containers, growing media, soil and other terms both in the regulations and in general.”

Lee Frankel, executive director of the Coalition for Sustainable Organics, supported the move to send the issue back to committee. In a written statement, he agreed that there is “need for further deliberation and clarification of the Crops Subcommittee recommendation.

“We agree making any decision now would be irresponsible until such a time as the board is able to weigh all competing views,” Frankel continued. “Only after a full, fair and open airing of all of the relevant issues should a decision regarding organic certification of containerized growing methods be considered.”

Frankel’s group supports the existing standard that allows hydroponic and other containerized growing to be labeled as organic. “We believe organic growing is and should continue to be defined by how plants are nourished and protected from pests and disease,” he said. “Organic containerized growing methods use the same natural inputs as open field growers to nourish and grow crops. Not only are these growing methods organic, they significantly reduce the amount of land, water and other resources needed to grow organic produce, and, most importantly, ensure organic foods are more accessible so that everyone has the option to enjoy produce free of harmful chemicals and synthetic fertilizers.”

Containerized production that adheres to the U.S. Department of Agriculture organic standards under the National Organic Program has been certified since that program began in 2002. However, there is a faction in the organic industry that believes organic production revolves around a total biosystem that includes improving the soil from which it came. This group argues that if improvement of the earth’s soil is not part of the equation, the product should not qualify as organic.  Generally, this is the approach taken by the European Union.

Since the USDA’s National Organic Program began, however, organic production has been defined by what it is not, which basically means it is devoid of synthetic crop protection tools. In 2010, a recommendation was made to National Organic Standards Board to prohibit the organic certification of production that did not include “sufficient organic matter capable of supporting natural and diverse ecology.”

But that recommendation was not adopted and instead the Crop Subcommittee has been studying the issue and made the proposal that the NOSB did not vote on last week.