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Victory for hydroponic growers

Judge rules: This lettuce can be organic

Good news for the organic growers of the US. Or at least, for the organic hydroponic growers of the US. The U.S. District Court in San Francisco has affirmed the legality of U.S. Department of Agriculture certification of organic hydroponic operations. This means that the organic label can be used for produce grown using containers or other hydroponic organic systems. 

Ongoing debate
It's an ongoing debate: are hydroponics to be included or excluded as certified organic? According to the website NationalAgLawCenter.org even more than a quarter-century by now. Now there's a new chapter added to the story. 

Last year a group of organic growers under the name Plaintiff Center for Food Safety (CFS) asked the USDA in a rulemaking petition to prohibit organic certification of hydroponic production systems. They claim that hydroponic operations violate organic standards for failing to build healthy soils. USDA declined this request and the CFS sought a review of this denial. 

The Court in San Francisco told them no and affirmed the legality of U.S. Department of Agriculture certification of organic hydroponic operations. "USDA’s denial of the rulemaking petition reasonably concluded the applicable statutory scheme does not exclude hydroponics from the organic program," is the official line. "Plaintiffs' motions are denied."

Organic Foods Production Act
Background of these rules is the OFPA, the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990, the established national certification and production standards for organic produce. Designed to remedy the inconsistencies among varying state organic certification schemes, OFPA authorized the creation of the National Organic Program (the NOP), which sets the national standards and administers the certification process. 

The court in its written opinion stated that “USDA’s ongoing certification of hydroponic systems that comply with all applicable regulations is firmly planted in OFPA.”

Coalition for Sustainable Organics
The Coalition for Sustainable Organics (CSO) is ecstatic with the ruling. Lee Frankel, executive director of the CSO, stated, “Our membership believes that everyone deserves organic. The decision is a major victory for producers and consumers working together to make organics more accessible and the supply more resilient. The COVID-19 pandemic has further increased demand for fresh organic vegetables and fruits as consumers look to healthy foods to bolster their immune systems and protect their family’s health. The court preserves historically important supplies of berries, tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, mushrooms, leafy greens, herbs, sprouts, and microgreens that are frequently grown using containers or other hydroponic organic systems. In addition, the lawsuit threatened the nursery industry that provides many of the seedlings used by organic growers planting both in open fields as well as greenhouses.”

The court in its written opinion stated that “USDA’s ongoing certification of hydroponic systems that comply with all applicable regulations is firmly planted in OFPA.”

Frankel was pleased that the court ruling clearly affirmed the legitimacy of hydroponic and container production systems under the Organic Foods Production Act that established the USDA National Organic Program. In addition, the ruling also confirmed that USDA was fully within its rights to reject the petition to ban the certification of operations and correctly followed procedures in its handling of the petition.

“We look forward to the organic industry coming together in the wake of this court decision to help strengthen the organic community, continue to enhance the cycling and recycling of natural resources, and promote ecological balance,” continued Frankel. “We are eternally grateful to the teams at USDA and the Department of Justice in effectively defending the work of the National Organic Program.”


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