November 9, 2017

Will ‘Bioponics’ Be Deemed Ineligible for Organic Certification?

By: Tim Linden

In early November, the National Organics Standards Board will meet in Jacksonville, FL, and on its agenda are proposals that will move the ball forward toward declaring hydroponics and other greenhouse-type growing methods as ineligible to receive organic certification from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Observers think the series of proposals have a fairly good chance of passing.

The issue has been around for two decades and has been the subject of some intense debating. Since the organics law was passed in the early 1990s and implemented in 2000, this controversial issue has been kicked down the road several times by the NOSB. Now it appears to be coming to a head with long-time, in-the-field organic producers lobbying hard for elimination of these growing systems that take place outside of the earth’s crust.

When the National Organics Program was first passed into law, it contained language that promoted the concept that organic production was a systems approach that very much included improving the earth’s soil. But from the very beginning, hydroponic production, and other soil-less systems, were declared eligible for organic certification if they followed all the other regulations that eventually created the USDA organic seal and certification to use it.

Nonetheless, there were efforts to prohibit these alternative growing systems and task forces named to study the issue. Hearings were held, reports were written, recommendations were even adopted by the NOSB but the final step, which involves buy-in by the USDA, has never been achieved.

Several times, the idea was kicked back to a sub-committee, which was charged with coming up with proposals that could be adopted.

Once again that is where the industry is at. A subcommittee of the NOSB has put forth several proposals dealing with the issue. The NOSB is currently accepting written comments on the proposals and will also entertain industry viewpoints in several other ways leading up to its Fall Meetings in Florida. In fact, those meetings will also have a session devoted to the topic in which more opinions will be aired.

Presumably, the NOSB will vote on the proposals prior to adjournment on either Nov. 1 or 2. It will take a two-thirds majority—or 10 of the 15 members—to pass the proposals. Any proposal that passes the full NOSB will then be delivered to the USDA to begin what is often an arduous rule-making process.

Michelle Arsenault, the USDA’s advisory board specialist for the National Organic Program, said if the NOSB passes the proposals, the rule-making process can take from one year to 10 years. Or the USDA can study it indefinitely. In September, Arsenault said she did not have a sense of whether NOSB would actually vote on the most controversial proposals during these meetings. As it has done before, the board could ask questions and send it back to the subcommittee for further work.

Others in the industry, however, think the proposals will finally get an up or down vote.

Lee Frankel, CEO of the Coalition for Sustainable Organics—a group aligned with these “bioponic” growing methods—believes passage of the proposal will depend upon grower turnout at the meeting. His group believes these growing methods are consistent with what many believe is the key theme of organic production, and that is that it does not include the use of synthetic pesticides. Anti-bioponic folks argue that organic production begins with the soil and must include a system that improves the soil—thus making soil-less production techniques ineligible for organic certification.

Frankel said the NOSB has members on both sides of the issue. It will take 10 votes, representing two thirds of the committee, to pass the proposals and prohibit hydroponic, aeroponic and aquaponics production.

Frankel did note the some of the proposals appeared to offer a compromise on the issue so he holds out hope that the November meetings won’t result in the end of the discussion by the industry. Of course, in any event, the discussion will continue if and when the USDA moves to the rule-making process. That process includes many opportunities for comment, and it has been the USDA practice, if not policy, to continue the process as it seeks consensus.


Basic Proposal

Frankel shared with Western Grower & Shipper the formal recommendations by the NOSB Crops Submcommittee as he interpreted them from the website and relayed to his membership.

“The proposals would make aeroponics, aquaponics and hydroponics prohibited practices under Section 205.105 of the USDA Organic Regulations,” he wrote. “Aeroponics would be defined as ‘a variation of hydroponic plant production in which plant roots are suspended in air and misted with nutrient solution.’ Aquaponics would be defined as ‘a recirculating hydroponic plant production system in which plants are grown in nutrients originating from aquatic animal waste water, which may include the use of bacteria to improve availability of these nutrients to the plants. The plants improve the water quality by using the nutrients, and the water is then recirculated back to the aquatic animals.’ Hydroponics would be defined as ‘any container production system that does not meet the standard of a limit of 20% of the plants’ nitrogen requirement being supplied by liquid feeding, and a limit of 50% of the plants’ nitrogen requirement being added to the container after the crop has been planted.’ ”

Frankel said the proposals would allow for some types of container production systems, if they can meet the nitrogen formulas laid out by the Crops Subcommittee. However, he said the language implies that perennials would need to be transplanted each year to a new container.

Under the proposals, transplants, ornamentals, herbs, sprouts, fodder, and aquatic plants are exempted from these requirements.

Frankel, who has been intimately involved in the discussion for the last several years, opined that during a web conference call conducted by the Crops Subcommittee and attended by the full membership of the NOSB in August, it did not appear as if the board itself had the same level of support for the recommendations as the nine subcommittee members. During the subcommittee votes on the proposals each proposal was approved by six, seven or eight votes.

There is no doubt that the tremendous growth in the organic sector has been achieved in great part by the many firms that are producing organic crops in a soil-less or container system. At the summer Organic Produce Summit, a very lively debate on this topic was one of the highlights of the meeting. Articulating the anti-bioponic viewpoint was longtime organic grower Tom Beddard, president and founder of Lady Moon Farms. He argued that growing systems that are not soil-based, which he believes is at the core of organic production, should not be allowed organic certification. He calls these production techniques “pesticide free” but not organic. He argued vociferously that these production techniques water down the USDA’s organic seal and deplete its value.

Jessie Gunn, director of marketing for Wholesum Farms, is an outspoken advocate of these alternative growing methods and believes they are largely responsible for expanding organic production and allowing more people the opportunity to eat organic produce. She said everyone should have that opportunity arguing that outlawing specific NOP-compliant production techniques limits the supply of organic produce, and by definition, increases the use of pesticides on our planet.

Ed Horton is president of Urban Farms, a vertical farming operation that uses a substrate and liquid fertilizers to produce fresh, organic crops in a factory setting. Horton took a more pragmatic approach stating that the only-soil message is too limiting.

The subcommittee appears to mirror Beddard’s thinking. In its report for the proposals, it states that the USDA organic seal is “built upon the primacy of soil stewardship.” The report argues that other organic principles such as supporting and enhancing biodiversity, minimizing the negative effects of farming and producing safe, nutrition and tasty food are secondary to soil.

In early November, the full NOSB will be able to voice its collective view and let the industry know where it stands.