Farmers, nonprofits sue USDA, saying hydroponics can't be organic

Center for Food Safety (CFS), along with a coalition of organic farms and stakeholders, filed a lawsuit challenging the United States Department of Agriculture's (USDA's) decision to allow hydroponic operations to be certified organic. The lawsuit claims that hydroponic operations violate organic standards for failing to build healthy soils, and asks the Court to stop USDA from allowing hydroponically-produced crops to be sold under the USDA Organic label. The plaintiff coalition includes some of the longest-standing organic farms in the United States including Swanton Berry Farm, Full Belly Farm, Durst Organic Growers, Terra Firma Farm, Jacobs Farm del Cabo, and Long Wind Farm, in addition to organic stakeholder organizations including organic certifier OneCert and the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association.

"Healthy soil is the foundation of organic farming," said Andrew Kimbrell, executive director of plaintiff Center for Food Safety, "Organic farmers and consumers believe that the Organic label means not just growing food in soil, but improving the fertility of that soil. USDA's loophole for corporate hydroponics to be sold under the Organic label guts the very essence of 'Organic'."   

CFS's lawsuit cites the federal Organic Foods Production Act, which requires farms to build soil fertility in order to be certified organic. Hydroponics cannot comply with federal organic standards because hydroponic crops are not grown in soil, the CFS claims.

"The federal organic law unequivocally requires organic production to promote soil fertility," said Sylvia Wu, senior attorney at the Center for Food Safety and counsel for plaintiffs. "USDA's decision to allow mega-hydroponic operations that do nothing with soil to be sold as 'Organic' violates the law."

"Healthy soil is critical to producing nutrient-dense foods that benefit both people and the environment," said Paul Muller, one of the farm owners of plaintiff Full Belly Farm in Guinda, California, a diversified family farm that has been farmed organically since 1985. "Healthy soil increases and improves the availability of soil nutrients and beneficial microorganisms, and enhances the land's ability to sequester carbon and retain nutrients and water."

"While I welcome the work that my friends in the hydroponic industry are doing, hydroponic production does not conform to the soil-building precepts of organic farming," said Jim Cochran, owner of plaintiff Swanton Berry Farm, one of the oldest certified organic strawberry farms in California. "I would be perfectly happy to have my strawberries compete with properly distinguished hydroponically-grown strawberries, without the latter piggybacking on an Organic label that has taken more than 30 years to develop and establish in the minds of consumers. Certifying hydroponically-grown crops as organic devalues that label."

"The USDA's claim that hydroponics can be certified as organic is disingenuous and false," said Sam Welsch, president of plaintiff organic certifier OneCert, Inc. "Until the USDA started telling certifiers that they could ignore the parts of the law and rules that required fertility to come from organic matter in soil, no one was certifying hydroponic systems as organic."

For more information:
Center for Food Safety
www.centerforfoodsafety.org


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