Mar 4, 2020
USDA sued for allowing organic certifications for soil-less growing
Stephen Kloosterman

A group of organic growers and nonprofit organizations on March 3 sued the USDA and top officials in its National Organic Program (NOP) over its decision to allow soil-less grow operations, such as hydroponics, to be certified organic.

The lawsuit, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California, asks for a court order to stop organic certifications to hydroponic operations and declarations against a USDA denial of a petition to make a rule against hydroponics in the NOP.

Growers named as plaintiffs in the lawsuit include:

  • Swanton Berry Farm, “a certified organic farm with fields located in Santa Cruz and San Mateo counties in California” that was founded in 1983.
  • Full Belly Farm, “a diversified 400-acre certified organic farm located in the Capay Valley of Yolo County, California” certified as organic since 1985.
  • Durst Organic Growers, “a certified organic, family-owned farm located in Yolo County, California,” certified organic since 1988.
  • Terra Firma Farm, “a 200-acre, certified organic farm located in Winters, California,” certified organic since 1988.
  • Jacobs Farm/del Cabo, “one the nation’s leading certified organic growers of fresh culinary herbs, edible flowers, as well as a variety of produce including tomatoes and squash” with “nearly 5,000 acres of certified organic fields and greenhouses” in California and Mexico.
  • Long Wind Farm of East Thetford, Vermont, which “specializes in producing delicious organic tomatoes for customers throughout the Northeast,” and “employs about 30 employees to farm roughly 2.5 acres of organic tomatoes in greenhouses.”

Other plaintiffs include organic certifier OneCert and the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association, and the nonprofit Center for Food Safety.

Defendants named in the suit include U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue, Bruce Summers who heads up the USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service, and Jennifer Tucker, Deputy Administrator of the National Organic Program.

The USDA’s media office didn’t respond to a request from Organic Grower for comment on the lawsuit.

Jennifer Tucker mug shot
Jennifer Tucker

Tucker in June 2019 wrote the letter denying a petition from the Center for Food Safety for rulemaking against hydroponics in the NOP.

“NOP’s analysis concludes that organic hydroponic systems cycle and conserve resources in a different way from soil-based systems, however, that does not make them incompatible with the vision for organic agriculture expressed in the OFPA,” Tucker wrote, referring to the Organic Foods Production Act. “Hydroponic operations produce food in a way that can minimize damage to soil and water, and that can support diverse biological communities.”

The USDA in earlier formal documents has lumped hydroponics with other soilless growing techniques such as aeroponics (misting plant roots with water and nutrients) and aquaculture (using water fertilized the excretions of fish in tanks). The lawsuit filed March 3 mentioned just hydroponics and aeroponics.

In a press release from the Center for Food Safety, the plaintiffs spoke about their reasons for getting involved:

“Healthy soil is critical to producing nutrient-dense foods that benefit both people and the environment,” said Paul Muller, an owner of Full Belly Farm. “Healthy soil increases and improves the availability of soil nutrients and beneficial microorganisms, and enhances the land’s ability to sequester carbon and retain nutrients and water.”

“While I welcome the work that my friends in the hydroponic industry are doing, hydroponic production does not conform to the soil-building precepts of organic farming,” said Jim Cochran, owner of Swanton Berry Farm, one of the oldest certified organic strawberry farms in California. “I would be perfectly happy to have my strawberries compete with properly distinguished hydroponically-grown strawberries, without the latter piggybacking on an Organic label that has taken more than 30 years to develop and establish in the minds of consumers. Certifying hydroponically-grown crops as organic devalues that label.”

“Hydroponic operations have their own unique benefits, but they do not enrich the soil, which is the very foundation of organic agriculture,” said Larry Jacobs of Jacobs Farm in Pescadero, California, a growers of organic herbs and specialty produce — and founder of the Del Cabo Cooperative, an organic farming collective that supports more than 1,100 farming families in Mexico.

“Agriculture, wherever you are, should be built upon the premise that the soil brings us life,” said Jim Durst, owner of Durst Organic Growers, a fourth-generation organic family farm. “The soil is not dead. It’s a living creature. A major part of the sanctity of organic agriculture is discovering and honoring the mystery of soil.”

Tucker wrote in her 2019 letter that the NOP proposal that although “organic hydroponic systems have been controversial … the record is clear that the National Organic Program (NOP) has consistently allowed for the certification of hydroponics operations, as long as the certifier determines that the system complies with the USDA organic regulations.”

The National Organic Standards Board, which advises the USDA and NOP on policy matters, in April 2010 recommended that hydroponic operations should not be certified as organic.

“However, after analyzing this recommendation, the NOP determined that the recommendation did not provide sufficient details to support moving forward with guidance or rulemaking,” Tucker wrote. “In addition, the recommendation conflicted with a 1995 NOSB recommendation, which stated that hydroponics could be certified as organic, if done in compliance with OFPA and the USDA organic regulations.”

However, many growers remain unhappy with that policy.

“Healthy soil is the foundation of organic farming,” Andrew Kimbrell, executive director of the Center for Food Safety, said in a released statement. “Organic farmers and consumers believe that the Organic label means not just growing food in soil, but improving the fertility of that soil. USDA’s loophole for corporate hydroponics to be sold under the Organic label guts the very essence of ‘Organic’.”

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

Stephen Kloosterman is the managing editor of Organic Grower.

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