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New step taken in US debate over hydroponics "organic" labeling

Today, the Center for Food Safety (CFS), representing a broad coalition of organic farmers, certifiers, and organic nonprofits, filed their opening brief with the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, seeking reversal of a district court's ruling issued in March that authorizes the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to continue certifying soil-less hydroponic operations under the organic label. As in the district court case, CFS argues that hydroponic operations cannot comply with federal organic standards because hydroponic crop producers do not work to build soil health, a mandatory requirement of the organic label. Hydroponic operations, or "hydroponics," refer to methods of growing crops using water-based nutrient solutions without any soil.  

"USDA is ignoring the core, soil-based principles of organic farming and relying on an exemption for hydroponic producers found nowhere in the federal organic standard," said Meredith Stevenson, CFS attorney, and counsel for appellants. "The district court holding rubberstamped USDA's decision to continue unfairly undercutting the livelihoods of organic farmers who devote extensive time and resources to building healthy soils." 

This appeal cites the federal Organic Foods Production Act (the Organic Act), which requires crop farmers to build soil fertility in order to be certified organic. The appeal challenges the lower court's ruling that USDA was free to exempt hydroponic crop producers from the mandatory duty to build healthy soils.  

No soil improvement
"Soil is the essence of organic farming and taking care of the soil with cover crops and rotations is mandated by the National Organic Program. Improving the country's soil increases the value of our most important asset. Hydroponics has its place but has nothing to do with improving the soil," said Larry Jacobs of Jacobs Farm Del Cabo, Inc. 

CFS, along with 13 other organic stakeholders, originally filed a petition requesting USDA to prohibit organic certification of hydroponic operations that do not work with or build soil in January 2019. Most other U.S. trade partners prohibit hydroponic systems from organic certification. USDA denied the petition in June of 2019, stating for the first time that hydroponic operations are exempt from the mandatory soil fertility requirement of the Organic Act that applies to all other organic crop producers.  

"Organic farming has been historically understood as whole-farm management starting with building healthy soil. The near-universal acceptance of this basic premise is challenged with the administrative exception carved out by the USDA circumventing soil and allowing nutrient solutions to be considered equivalent in growing food labeled as organic," said Paul Muller, co-owner of Full Belly Farm. 

CFS, along with a coalition of organic farms and stakeholders, filed the lawsuit challenging USDA's decision to allow hydroponic operations to continue to be certified organic in March 2020. In March 2021, the district court sided with the government, ruling that USDA's decision to exempt hydroponic operations from the mandatory soil fertility requirement was permissible because the Organic Act did not specifically prohibit hydroponic operations. The plaintiffs-appellants formally notified the court of their intent to appeal the decision in May. 

"For our farmers and producers, it's clear that the organic regulations require soil-based crop production. Consumers also expect the highest integrity in the certified organic label. It's important for this matter to be settled so that consumers can trust that certified organic means soil-grown," said Sarah Alexander, executive director of the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association. 

The plaintiff-appellants in the case are some of the longest-standing organic farms in the U.S., including Swanton Berry Farm, Full Belly Farm, Durst Organic Growers, Jacobs Farm del Cabo, and Long Wind Farm, in addition to organic stakeholder organizations, such as organic certifier OneCert, the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association, and Center for Food Safety. 

For more information:
Center for Food Safety

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