Hydroponics – Organic or not?

Hydroponics is a type of agriculture which involves growing plants, typically crops, without soil. Plants are grown in mineral nutrient solutions and an inert media (like perlite, gravel, mineral wool, and others) may be used to provide support, to which mineral solutions are added. The fact that is it a soil-less type of agriculture causes some serious issues when it comes to organic products.

In the EU, the legal framework for organic products and organic production currently prevents products grown hydroponically from being certified as organic. This is explicitly mentioned in article 4 Regulation (EU) 889/2008, which clearly and simply states “hydroponic production is prohibited”. Only products which have been grown in soil can get the organic certification. On 1 January 2022, after a one-year delay caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, Regulation (EU) 2018/848 is due to enter into force, bringing ad updated and more modern legal framework to organic production. However, things are not going to change, as Annex I, part I, paragraph 1.1 of said regulation once again explicitly prevents products grown hydroponically from being labelled as organic. As a matter of fact, the previous paragraph 1.1 requires organic products to be “produced in living soil, or in living soil mixed or fertilised with materials and products allowed in organic production, in connection with the subsoil and bedrock”. Conditions that clearly cannot be met by soil-less productions. In a recent answer to a question about this topic, the European Commission confirmed that hydroponic agriculture is not going to be allowed for organic crops, as one of the objectives of organic production is the long-term fertility of soils, and a link to the soil has always been regarded as essential in the history of organic production in the EU.

The situation is slightly different in the United States, where the US Department for Agriculture (USDA) allows for hydroponic produce to be regarded as “organic”. It has been like this till the National Organic Programme (normally referred to as “NOP”, a federal programme which duty is to develop and enforce standards for organic produce) was set up. Nevertheless, the topic is controversial and there has been a lot of discussion around it throughout time. In 2010, the National Organics Standards Board (NOSB), a body established by the Organic Foods Production Act (OFPA) in order to provide advice and assist in the making of standards about organic products, recommended hydroponic and aeroponic systems to be prohibited, highlighting that “growing media shall contain sufficient organic matter capable of supporting natural and diverse soil ecology”.  However, no action was taken, and no rules have been passed prohibiting these systems. The same goes for other recommendations and motions aimed at banning hydroponics to be used for organic crops prepared through time, which were either inconclusive or never voted on.

In 2019, the Center for Food Safety, a non-profit organisation, petitioned the USDA to prohibit the organic certification “of hydroponic agricultural production systems and products”, claiming that hydroponic agriculture does not meet NOP standards and violates the provisions of OFPA, which require, among others, soil prevention and conservation of biodiversity. Following the denial of the petition in June 2019, the Center for Food Safety, representing several farmers using “soil-based” techniques, filed a lawsuit, claiming that the denial of the petition was against the law, with particular regard to the provisions of the OFPA, creating a “an unlawful loophole” and resulting in “inconsistent organic standards”. In March 2021, the US District Court for Northern California denied the motions of the plaintiffs. The judge ruled that “USDA’s ongoing certification of hydroponic systems that comply with all applicable regulations is firmly planted in OFPA”, also mentioning that “USDA’s denial of the rulemaking petition reasonably concluded the applicable statutory scheme does not exclude hydroponics from the organic program”.

What do you think about this topic? I will soon post a YouTube video on our channel with some food for thoughts.

FURTHER READINGS

EU: https://ec.europa.eu/info/food-farming-fisheries/farming/organic-farming/organic-production-and-products_en

(by Simone Volpe and Cesare Varallo)

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