While both sides still feel they’re in the right as to whether or not hydroponic produce should be certified as organic, that argument ended on November 1, 2017, with an industry decision that such certification was allowable.

The highly emotional status declaration came down at the Fall 2017 NOSB meeting in Florida, where the advisory body to the USDA ruled that hydroponic and aquaponic farms could carry the organic label. They’ve been allowed to be called organic for a number of years, but now it will be official.

Still, the proverbial Hatfield and McCoy battle on the issue remains pretty heated. Both sides still believe they have the best idea.

The Coalition for Sustainable Organics put the approval in the win column for them, pleased that NOSB rejected a number of proposals that would revoke the certification of many hydroponic, aquaponic, and container growers. President Lee Frankel’s contention was that more, not less, organic product was needed to feed a hungry world. “Everyone deserves organic, and this proposal would have made it harder for consumers to access organic produce as a meaningful solution to environmental challenges faced by growers (who) need to adapt to site-specific conditions,” he says.

Another supporter, the Recirculating Farms Coalition, was equally pleased with the vote. “NOSB made the right decision,” says executive director Marianne Cufone. “Many products already carry a USDA Organic label and to now withdraw that would be irresponsible and confusing for both farmers and consumers.”

Conversely, The Cornucopia Institute group had sought rejection of what they called a “watering down” of organic standards supported by “big money and powerful corporate lobbyists who want their piece of a growing organic pie.” They advised a “no” vote to “protect soil-based farmers who raise fruits and vegetables in a sustainable, healthy fashion.”

The NOSB ballot count wasn’t an overwhelming landslide but a squeaker win with an eight to seven final tally to reject proposals prohibiting hydroponic/aquatic production certification. By a much larger margin (14 to zero, with one abstention), however, aeroponics was denied the organic certification.

Biosystems engineer Dr. Stacy Tollefson of the Controlled Environment Agriculture Center at the University of Arizona, a member of the Hydroponic and Aquaponic Taskforce, says she’s dumbfounded the NOSB didn’t support aeroponics. She asks, “If they support aquaponics and liquid systems, why not aeroponics?”

The NOSB recommendation is now in the hands of USDA. The federal agency and the staff of the National Organic Program will decide on the rules to modify existing organic standards. Once that is done, there will be a public comment period and a regulatory review before the new classifications become regulation.

Going forward, “This decision should promote more innovation in organic production,” Tollefson says. “There may be increasing pressure to be more transparent within the USDA Organic label, perhaps a push for mandatory labeling that differentiates ‘soil grown’ versus ‘container grown.’”