USDA Caught in the Middle on Hydroponic “Organic” Production

The “Washington Insider” update from DTN yesterday indicated that, “More than two decades ago, Congress told USDA to set up a national organics program that would regulate and certify certain production processes to qualify products for an ‘organic’ label.

“As you might expect, USDA set up advisory boards and committees and developed such a process. However, the agency is still in the business of deciding what should be allowed to be labeled and what should not. For example, certain biotech products were originally eligible, but that was changed after a storm of protest.

USDA depends on recommendations of a 15 member Organic Standards Board that hammers out recommendations over which production methods are acceptably organic. The current Board is meeting this week, and at least one question on the agenda is ‘roiling the world of organic farming,’ the New York Times says. It thinks that the answer could redefine ‘what it means to farm organically.'”

The DTN update noted that, “On one side are the growing number of big and small growers raising fruits and vegetables in hydroponic systems who argue that their production methods are not basically different from those of farmers who grow plants in dirt. They also think their approach makes organic farming more sustainable by, for instance, reducing water use…[N]ot so, say many farmers who have spent years developing practices to draw nutrients from the soil. They argue that organic production is first and foremost about caring for the soil, which produces environmental benefits that go beyond growing plants.”

The DTN article explained that, “In 2010, the Board recommended that hydroponic systems be ruled ineligible for organic certification because they excluded ‘the soil-plant ecology intrinsic to organic farming systems.’ At that time, there were only 39 hydroponic growers with organic certification.

USDA has not yet acted on the board’s recommendation, so organic certification of crops grown in hydroponic systems is continuing. The number of hydroponic growers with organic certification dropped to 30, but there were 22 certified aquaponic growers and 69 certified operations growing plants in containers lined with things like peat moss and coconut husks.

So, once again USDA is caught in the middle.”

Yesterday’s update added that, “So, the issue continues to simmer and, once again and it will be interesting to see what the Board and USDA decide to do. Still, consumers may have a word in the outcome of the debate—especially, if hydroponic products are significantly cheaper to produce and their quality is high.”

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