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Battle brewing over organic standards for ‘bioponics’

The National Organic Standards Board was set to meet the third week of November in St. Louis, where a controversial proposal concerning organic certification of “bioponics” would be on the agenda.  

Bioponics is the relatively new umbrella moniker given to the soil-less and containerized production techniques of hydroponics and aquaponics. With an issue that is both complicated and confusing, it is no wonder that the proposal itself is convoluted.

Opponents of the certification of fresh produce grown in mediums other than soil have put forth a proposal to approve that growing method in the belief that the effort will not get the two-thirds vote necessary for approval, thus prohibiting the practice. However, considering these crops have been eligible for certification since the National Organic Program was first established in 2002, there is no agreement at all that a lack of approval necessarily means prohibition.

One expert on the subject, speaking on background only, said that if the proposal fails, prohibition would have to be decided somewhere down the road, maybe by the courts.

The issue actually dates back to the beginning of the establishment of the National Organic Program. At that time, there was no specific provision discussing a requirement that crops certified as organic necessarily needed to be grown outdoors in soil.

In fact, the initial NOP allowed for the certification of hydroponic production if it met all other provisions of the Organic Food Production Act, which is what established the U.S. Department of Agriculture organic certification program. However, it is fair to say that for many longtime organic pioneers a basic tenant of organic production involves a compost-based system of improving the soil that they do not believe is compatible with a hydroponic system, or any containerized system.

Fast forward to 2010, when a recommendation that was never adopted by the NOSB noted that soil-less production should not be certified as organic. The issue continued to fester, and in 2015 the NOP established a Hydroponic-Aquaponic Task Force to write a report to NOSB on whether hydroponic-aquaponic production should be allowed under the current organic regulations, and if not, how the regulations could or should be changed. The report was completed in July 2016 and now is on the agenda of the upcoming NOSB meeting.

Right in the middle of this debate is Coalition for Sustainable Organics and its executive director, Lee Frankel. His group, which represents many different hydroponic and container growers, believes these methods of production are consistent with organic production and should continue to be allowed, as they have been for the last 14 years.  He said these are sustainable growing practices that use less water, needs less land, significantly reduce erosion and extend the growing season of plants. No synthetic pesticides are being used, and science supports their inclusion.

“The Coalition for Sustainable Organics believes that we should be making it easier, not harder, for people to access organic produce,” said Frankel. “The proposals being presented by a subcommittee of the National Organic Standards Board go against the original principles of organic farming.”

The Organic Trade Association, the largest group representing the various segments of the industry, has not taken a firm position but believes the proposal being presented to NOSB is premature and incomplete.

In comments to the board about this proposal, OTA Farm Policy Director Nathaniel Lewis noted that there is a lack of clarity in the proposal and that there needs to be a “clear set of definitions around containers, growing media, soil, and other terms both in the regulations and in general.”

He said NOSB has issued contradictory statements on the issue. The OTA wants the proposal returned to the task force for further work. The group wants definitions of these various growing techniques as well as discussion documents on if and what standards should be established to allow for USDA certification. OTA is anticipating that this work could be accomplished by the spring of 2017.

Lewis said that there are innovations in crop production that did not exist and were not taken into account when the initial program was codified. He characterized this issue as the industry grappling with innovations and trying to figure out how they work within the system.

Rick Antle, chief executive officer of Tanimura & Antle in Salinas, CA, which does have hydroponic lettuce production, believes that the consumer is being unjustifiably left out of this discussion.

T&A is a member of Frankel’s Coalition for Sustainable Organics, which produced a report chronicling what the consumer believes the USDA organic certification means. Antle said the benefits to soil are way down the list for the consumer. What they want are fresh fruits and vegetables grown in a sustainable manner.

According to the study, 93 percent of respondents indicate that reduction in pesticide use is very import and 89 percent stated that the organic industry should focus on improved affordability.  

Frankel said both of those objectives are achieved with containerized production. He noted 91 percent of the respondents in the survey favor the current NOP regulations, which does not limit organic production to products grown outdoors in soil.