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With the NOSB Refusing to Ban Hydroponics from Organic, Opinions Vary as to What is Next

Earlier this month in Jacksonville, Florida, a majority of the 15-member National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) voted not to make the recommendation to the USDA to ban hydroponics in organic.

These members arrived at this decision despite the fact that hydroponics — a soilless system — is a clear violation of Section 6513 b-1 of the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990 (OFPA).

Section 6513 b-1 says that:

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.

With many family-farmers and consumer groups expressing outrage at this decision and feeling completely betrayed by the NOSB, there has been speculation about what happens next.

Seeking answers amidst a sea of different rumors, I reached out to a handful of leaders and organizations in the industry who have been fighting to remove hydroponics from organic certification. Here is what they had to say:


DAVE CHAPMAN — organic tomato grower, owner of Long Wind Farm in Vermont, and organizer of Keep the Soil in Organic

Last week there was an impromptu meeting in Vermont, which was attended by about 30 farmers. The consensus was there is a real problem in organic and that the USDA label is failing us. There was no consensus, however, as to what we do instead.

There is a bit of excitement about some type of add-on label to the USDA organic seal or some new standalone label. What was clear is that people are not going to accept things as they are.

In terms of Rodale’s Regenerative Organic Certification (ROC) label, there was no consensus on that either, and most people at the meeting were actually unaware of the ROC. My personal belief is what was proposed represents good things, and the ROC will be a gold standard. However, it will probably be out of reach for many organic farmers, and the standards were created without much farmer input. Rodale has the best of intentions and I applaud the effort, but I don’t think farmers will be flocking to the ROC.

One thing we have to acknowledge is that every single member who voted to keep hydroponics in organic was approved by former USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack. You cannot blame this on Trump. This was Obama’s USDA, and Tom Vilsack did no favors for the organic movement.

Over the last six years, there has been a strong effort to reform the National Organic Program, but that has failed. The organic label has been hijacked, and how do you deal with hijackers? We might need to build another ship.


MARK KASTEL — Co-Founder of The Cornucopia Institute

The situation on the NOSB is incredibly manipulated by corporate agribusiness, principally the Organic Trade Association (OTA). The OTA is the most powerful influence as to what happens at the NOSB and the USDA’s National Organic Program (NOP).

Our legal team is doing the research right now, and we think there is ample basis for bringing a federal challenge. Parts of the law are very clear but when it is more difficult, you need to have a court intercede. I would be surprised if it were not filed in a timely manner.

We will also explore injunctive relief with our attorneys. Illegal activity is happening right now, and we will ask the courts to immediately address this problem if we think we can prevail.

Unfortunately, the legal process is generally not a quick one, and we are still litigating over the change to the Sunset Rule. It has been 2.5 years already, and the merits of the case have still not been debated.

Even if we win the case with hydroponics, the clock doesn’t start until we win in court. That means three to five years of hydroponic organic on shelves. Then, the USDA will give the industry another 12 months to undo the illegalities if the people prevail in court.

In the interim, we have launched a campaign aimed at retailers to give consumers the right to choose and to create separate identity for organic hydroponic, with signage and labeling in place.

We are gathering letters from consumers as we speak and plan on meeting with retailers in early 2018. Right now, Natural Grocers and a number of co-ops are labeling hydroponics throughout the country. And we expect more retailers to join with organic farmers in this educational effort.

In general, however, organic hydroponic is not labeled and when consumers become aware of what is going on, they feel betrayed.


LISA STOKKE — Founder and Executive Director of Next7

For those of us who know hydroponics, we know that hydroponics being allowed in organic is a glaring atrocity.

Is continuing to fight against hydroponics the right battle to be having and the right place to be putting our energy?

Or, do we work on building a newer platform with a whole different certification? This is something that is more owned by the people and is truly grass roots, which cannot be taken from us. It is what we really need. These regulatory battles suck up a lot of our energy and time.

The question that should be asked is how do we begin to build the system that we need to have for a thriving future — one that offers the promise of healthier food, one that has a real farmer behind it, and one that protects the soil.


JIM GERRITSEN — organic potato farmer in Maine, owner of Wood Prairie Family Farm, and President of the Organic Seed Growers and Trade Association (OSGATA)

Everyone in the authentic organic community knows that NOP is consistently failing to follow the law. This is not the first time that they are not following OFPA.

OSGATA is a plaintiff against the NOP in regards to the Sunset Rule, which was changed in defiance of OFPA. We are highly confident that we will win on that case.

No one at OSGATA is talking about leaving organic, something that we have fought for 40 years to create. We’d like to see fake hydroponic leave organic because they don’t qualify as organic and they fail to meet the law.

OSGATA is looking at potential remedies to protect both honest family organic farmers who are playing by the rules and the vast number of organic eaters who want authentic organic food.


CAMERON HARSH — Senior Manager for Organic and Animal Policy at the Center for Food Safety

At the Center for Food Safety, we are assessing our options and are looking at the best next steps to ensure that soilless systems are prohibited in organic. We want to make sure that organic production is in line with OFPA.

We are looking at grass roots strategies and are also looking to engage NOSB members because we value that as a transparent process. Furthermore, the NOSB is going to continue debating container growing system requirements, and the board has not come up with a full definition of what a container growing system is.


My Take: After speaking to the five people above and numerous other players in the industry since the hydroponics vote in Jacksonville, I have a few takeaways:

1) It is a positive sign that legal action appears to be imminent because that is the only way hydroponics will be removed from organic. Nevertheless, it could take years for the courts to rule on this and to go into effect.

2) I was relieved to learn that there does not appear to be a mass exodus of farmers from organic. While some will certainly leave the program, others want to continue fighting to protect and strengthen the organic seal.

3) The reaction of some organic farmers about Rodale’s ROC was surprising, in terms of not being involved in developing the proposed standards and also seeing the standards as potentially too difficult to meet. All farmers were able to comment on the proposed standards and maybe their feedback will be incorporated into the final set of standards, thereby reflecting a broad range of needs and wants of organic farmers from across the country.

In speaking with many organic food brands, it seems that there is a very strong interest for them to receive ROC for their organic food products. The question then becomes whether there is equal interest on the farmers’ side. That remains to be seen, but I truly hope that ROC becomes a very successful program.


Have a great day!

Max Goldberg, Founder

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