Mar 22, 2021
Court rules hydroponics, aeroponics OK for USDA organic program
Stephen Kloosterman

A Friday, March 19 ruling by U.S. District Court in San Francisco came down in favor of the USDA’s policy allowing hydroponic and aeroponic farming operations to be certified organic by the National Organic Program.

A lawsuit brought just more than 12 months ago by the Center for Food Safety (CFS), a group of growers and other organizations had challenged the USDA’s policy on grounds that hydroponic systems and other soil-less growing techniques lacked “soil fertility building.” The court in January 2021 had heard oral arguments in the suit.

“Siding with the government, the Court ruled that USDA’s decision to exempt hydroponic operations from the soil fertility requirement mandatory for all soil-based crop producers was permissible because the Organic Foods Production Act did not specifically prohibit hydroponic operations,” CFS wrote in a news release.

“USDA’s ongoing certification of hydroponic systems that comply with all applicable regulations is firmly planted in OFPA,” according to a copy of the ruling posted online.

The issue continues to divide organic growers.

The San Diego, California-based Coalition for Sustainable Organics (CSO), wrote in its own news release that it was “ecstatic” with the ruling.

“Our membership believes that everyone deserves organic,” CSO executive director Lee Frankel said in the news release. “The decision is a major victory for producers and consumers working together to make organics more accessible and the supply more resilient. The COVID-19 pandemic has further increased demand for fresh organic vegetables and fruits as consumers look to healthy foods to bolster their immune systems and protect their family’s health. The court preserves historically important supplies of berries, tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, mushrooms, leafy greens, herbs, sprouts and microgreens that are frequently grown using containers or other hydroponic organic systems. In addition, the lawsuit threatened the nursery industry that provides many of the seedlings used by organic growers planting both in open fields as well as greenhouses.”

CFS and growers named as plaintiffs in the original lawsuit were less upbeat.

“Under the Court’s ruling, hydroponic producers can sell their crops as organic without building soil fertility, yet organic farmers growing food in soil have to meet various soil-building requirements to be certified organic,” said Sylvia Wu, senior attorney with Center for Food Safety and counsel for plaintiffs. “This double standard violates the very purpose of the Organic label and is contrary to the federal organic act. We are analyzing all our legal options and will continue to work hard to defend the meaning of the Organic label.”

“Soil fertility has always been the fundamental building block of any organic farming system,” said Paul Muller, co-owner of plaintiff Full Belly Farm in Guinda, California, a producer of Certified Organic crops in California since 1984. “That’s why at Full Belly, we work hard to build soil fertility through active soil management and amendment, diversified crop planting, cover cropping, and other farming practices that promote soil health and biodiversity. But after the court’s ruling, in-the-ground certified organic farms like Full Belly will have to continue to compete in the same marketplace with hydroponic producers who do not need to lift a finger to build soil. While hydroponic systems may have their own benefits, the connection between soil health, human health, and planetary stewardship is missing in these soil-less systems. They simply should not be called ‘Organic.'”

“The Federal court decision rejecting the hydroponic lawsuit was a sad note in the song of our democracy. The Federal government’s ongoing redefinition of organic is an example of corporate influence drowning out citizens’ voices,” said Dave Chapman, owner of plaintiff Long Wind Farm and founder of the Real Organic Project. “We all know that soil-less growing cannot be called organic. But the organic movement will continue with or without the USDA, as the National Organic Program moves further and further away from the people it was meant to serve and protect. When laws operate without the consent of the governed, we all lose. That is why the Real Organic movement exists.”

CSO’s leader said he hoped different interests in the organic sector could unite after the legal action.

“We look forward to the organic industry coming together in the wake of this court decision to help strengthen the organic community, continue to enhance the cycling and recycling of natural resources and promote ecological balance,” Frankel said in the news release. “We are eternally grateful to the teams at USDA and the Department of Justice in effectively defending the work of the National Organic Program.”

Above, a hydroponic greenhouse used to produce organic greens. Photo: USDA/Lance Cheung

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Stephen Kloosterman is the managing editor of Organic Grower magazine.
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