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Cornucopia accuses USDA of allowing 'illegal' organic produce production

The discussion on container grown and hydroponicly grown versus soil grown organics heats up again now that an organic industry watchdog claims that the USDA has quietly allowed imported hydroponically-produced fruits and vegetables to be illegally labeled and sold as organic. The Wisconsin-based Cornucopia Institute, announced they had filed a formal legal complaint against some of the largest agribusinesses involved in the practice and their organic certifying agents.

According to Cornucopia, the USDA has allowed over 100 foreign and domestic, soil-less operations to become certified organic, creating unfair competition for soil-based US growers. The US is an outlier in international commerce as most countries prohibit the organic certification of soil-less hydroponic produce, including the 28 countries of the European Union, Mexico, Japan and Canada.

USDA comments

According to Sam Jones-Ellard with the USDA, the USDA does not specifically address hydroponic and aquaponic systems in its organic regulation. “Organic certification is allowed as long as the grower meets all the organic requirements and complies with the USDA organic regulations,” Jones-Ellard said.

In the past, the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) was asked by the USDA to make a recommendation regarding hydroponic and aquaponic systems qualifying as organic. The NOSB is a federal advisory board made up of 15 volunteers from the organic industry. “In 1995, the NOSB recommended that hydroponic and aquaponic-grown produce could be certified organic. In 2010, the NOSB made the conflicting recommendation that hydroponic and aquaponic systems should not be allowed as certified organic,” mentioned Jones-Ellard.

Recommendation on November 18

In September 2015, the USDA’s National Organic Program started a task force that was charged with researching whether soil-less systems align with the USDA organic regulations or not. The task force put together a report that explores whether soil-less systems meet basic tenets of the federal law governing organic production. On Friday November 18, the NOSB will make a recommendation to the USDA regarding organic standards at its semi-annual meeting in St. Louis. This vote comes six years after the NOSB initially reaffirmed that hydroponics and aquaponics should be prohibited under the organic label. “The USDA will take the recommendations and determine next steps that could include an update of the organic guidelines,” shared Jones-Ellard.

Hydroponic growers unite

A group hydroponic produce farmers have joined forces to form the Coalition for Sustainable Organics. They are urging the USDA and the NOSB to continue the longstanding USDA policy of certifying containerized growing methods, a natural method for growing plants that produce fruits and vegetables in containers instead of planting them in the ground. The Coalition believes the future of growing – including organic growing – depends on the inclusion and expansion of sustainable practices like container grown and soilless grown crops.

The Coalition believes a change to the current standards would eliminate the ability of thousands of growers to certify container-grown fruits, vegetables and herbs as organic, a move that will likely put many successful growers out of business, and limit the amount of organic produce available to the public at a time when demand is at an all-time high.

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