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US: End of the line for hundreds of organic growers?

The Crops Subcommittee of the National Organic Standards Board has submitted a recommendation that crops using hydroponic, aquaponic, aeroponic and other containerized growing methods—commonly used for products like living lettuce, herbs, sprouts and leafy greens—should no longer be eligible for organic certification. In addition, the Crops Subcommittee recommended new restrictions on the growing media for producers of other crops that use containers in their farming practices. This would have the greatest impact on the production of organic berries, tomatoes, cucumbers and peppers. The U.S. Department of Agriculture recently published these proposals from the Crops Subcommittee for consideration at the Board’s November 2016 meeting.

“The Coalition for Sustainable Organics believes that we should be making it easier, not harder, for people to access organic produce,” stated Lee Frankel, executive director for the Coalition. “The proposals being presented by a subcommittee of the National Organic Standards Board go against the original principles of organic farming. It was stunning to see their statement that the conservation of natural resources, such as clean water, is not a valid concern for organic production systems.”

Karen Archipley, co-owner of Archi’s Acres, a certified organic greenhouse operation headquartered in Escondido, California, expressed her concerns about the proposal. “The proposal will cause undue harm to our business and discourage farmers and consumers from choosing organics that are truly sustainable,” stated Archipley. “The consumers of our living basil, kale, other herbs and produce embrace the fact that we are conserving water and delivering a product of the highest quality and flavor through our production methods, which are truly organic.”

Martin Gramckow, founding member of the Coalition for Sustainable Organics and a certified organic grower of blueberries, raspberries and blackberries for Southland Sod Farms in the Oxnard, California area, was also troubled by the recommendation. “While I appreciate the hard work of the members of the National Organic Standards Board, I disagree with the direction taken by the Crops Subcommittee. We need to maintain the sensible current standards for organic production using containers rather than insisting on requirements that are wasteful and counter to the environmentally conscious ethos that 'Organic' represents. My container production results in higher productivity through healthier plants, by optimizing the root zone environment and its associated biological processes. Making arbitrary changes to existing organic rules will limit future innovation and needlessly restrict people’s access to domestic organic supplies.”

Container growing as a sustainable approach
Container growing is a controlled growing system in which plants derive nutrients from approved organic substances in water and/or growing material. A 2015 study showed water savings of more than 90 percent for container systems versus open-field production systems. These growing methods promote sustainability in many ways:
  • They generally require fewer resources per pound of fruits, vegetable or herbs produced compared to food grown outdoors in the soil
  • In most cases, container growing uses less water, needs less land, significantly reduces soil erosion and extends the growing season of plants
  • It also reduces runoff of nutrients or other chemicals into streams, lakes and water aquifers
Speak up for sustainable organics
The U.S. Department of Agriculture has opened a formal comment period where everyone, including consumers, producers, restaurants and supermarkets can express their view on the Crops Subcommittee’s proposal.

“The future of our diverse and sustainable organic supply is at risk,” said Frankel. “People need to share their opinion with the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the National Organics Standards Board to allow our farmers to remain proud members of the organic family.”

Interested parties can express their opinion online by going to and leaving a comment.

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