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guest post by Tinia Pina:

The classification gap of organic hydroponic food

A few months ago, the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) released a memorandum to the Organic Standards Board (OSB), which reported the findings of the Hydroponic and Aquaponic Task Force (HATF). In the memo, the HATF reinforced earlier findings of the OSB, reiterating that by the very nature of the word, hydroponically grown food cannot be classified as organic.

According to the memo, “The framework of organic farming is based on its foundation of sound management of soil biology and ecology.” Modern organic farming thus entails the “continuous restoration” of soil by adding combinations of manure, compost and natural rock to feed the soil, not the crops. In contrast, hydroponic crops use a soilless substrate such as rockwool, coco coir, hydrocorn, perlite or vermiculite, as the bed for seeds or seedlings. By definition, hydroponic crops do not use soil, and therefore the HATF and USDA found that hydroponically grown food cannot be classified as organic.

In this article, Tinia Pina, CEO and founder of Re-nuble, discusses two topics pertaining to the classification of hydroponic crops grown exclusively with products that consist of compost (or degraded organic waste) properties, and how we need further research in finding an equivalent classification to “organic” for hydroponically grown food.

Grown in the Ground – Grown in a Nutrient Solution Continuum
The definition of what’s grown in the ground and what’s grown in a nutrient solution is surprisingly difficult to parse. This is because modern day agricultural growing can happen in a variety of hybrid methods. In the chart below, we’ve visualized what the HATF named the “Grown in the Ground – Grown in a Nutrient Solution Continuum” represents. Of the five growing methods named, only the first two (from the left) can ever be certified organic. The other three methods (from the right) can never be certified organic.

As the graph above shows, there is no distinction among possible hydroponic liquid nutrient compositions. While the majority of hydroponically grown food uses inorganic inputs, there is a The Classification Gap of Organic Hydroponic Food company that produces nutrient products manufactured entirely with inputs that are organic and with biological components derived from the organic certified produce waste. Its products are liquid nutrients and crops grown would inherently undergo a process similar to crops grown with compost.

The clear delineation between this company’s nutrients and chemical nutrients thus presents a classification gap for crops grown. If all of the inputs in a hydroponic system are organic and the system uses a nutrient that incorporates a biological composting process to grow a crop, shouldn’t the yields be considered organic? Unfortunately, the findings of the HAFT did not offer further information on such a process.

What is “soil”?
Another deceptively complicated concept is defining what is considered “soil”. The HAFT report cites previous Crops Committee documents, which posed the question of whether growing media that are “predominantly compost and compostable plant materials be considered ‘soil?’”

In this context, such a question is ambiguous, because organic farming is built on the premise of nurturing soil to create “accompanying ecologies”. As the report notes, earthworms, protozoa, fungi, bacteria, antinomycetes and other soil dwelling organisms can exist in compost. Therefore, for all intents and purposes, compost is soil.

Thus, we the industry should pose the question – if composting-like processes are used to manufacture nutrients, can said hydroponic nutrients, when used in a hydroponic system, be an ecological extension of soil?

The HAFT report did say that regulations did not initially “specifically state ‘soil only production’” was required for organic certification, but that the intent of the regulations includes soil in organic certification. The 2010 findings of the OSB did mandate soil be the accepted norm, in line with European regulations. HAFT concedes, however, that standards must be added when classifying soilless growing system yields.

Why should we care?
The lack of clarity in the organic classification system for hydroponically grown food poses challenges to the indoor agriculture industry both as a threat to create a national, universal organic certification and as a threat to competitive pricing for hydroponically grown food. The demand for organic produce in the States has been on the rise for the past decade, with 2014 sales totaling USD 5.5 billion, up 72% since 2008. The “organic” certification on produce has a large and measureable value.

Ethically, we have a responsibility to our consumers. One of the main justifications of the lengthy and detailed HAFT report was to bring clarity to consumers on what constitutes “organic” products. With no equal classification to organic, those consuming hydroponically grown food – which is increasingly available across the country – have no way of knowing what their food contains.

Therefore, I propose a new system of classification for hydroponically grown food. An obvious method of classification is whether the used nutrients contain chemicals or non-plant inputs.

Knowing that there is a wide range of hydroponic growing systems, we welcome your thoughts on the issue. In the future, we hope to see the USDA explore the hydroponic “organic” classification question further.

Tinia Pina (e-mail) is the CEO and Founder of Re-Nuble.

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