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Elimination of hydroponics on NOSB’s agenda

A debate concerning organic certification for hydroponics that has been raging for more than a decade might come to a head during the fall meetings of the National Organics Standards Board in early November in Jacksonville, FL.

On the NOSB’s agenda for that meeting are a series of proposals that recommend declaring hydroponics, container-farming and other greenhouse-type growing methods as ineligible to receive organic certification from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. A sub-committee of the board has already approved the proposals, which would effectively eliminate organic certification eligibility for hydroponics, aeroponics and aquaponics.

The issue has been around for two decades and similar proposals have reached this level before without resulting in the banning of those farming methods.

Michelle Arsenault, the USDA’s advisory board specialist for the National Organic Program, told The Produce News that even if the NOSB passes the proposals that would serve only as a recommendation to the USDA. A rule-making process could then begin that could take years to complete, and would include many opportunities for further comment from the industry, as well as delays.

Nonetheless, this step is a big one and has proponents of those growing methods marshaling their forces for the NOSB’s benefit.

Lee Frankel, chief executive officer of the Coalition for Sustainable Organics, a trade group representing practitioners and advocates of bioponic growing methods, said passage of the proposals might depend upon who turns up at the meeting. He fully expects the traditional in-the-dirt organic farmers to be very vocal at the meetings in support of the proposals. He’s hopeful opponents will also make their voices heard.

Frankel believes these high-tech growing methods are consistent with the key theme of organic production, which is that it does not include the use of synthetic pesticides. The traditional farmers argue that organic production begins with the soil and must include a system that improves the soil, thus making soil-less production techniques ineligible for organic certification.

While that concept of soil improvement was included in the language of the initial National Organic Program, since organic certification criteria was adopted in 2000, these alternate growing methods have been eligible for certification under the regulations and have been certified.

A strong majority of the NOSB subcommittee did vote to approve these proposals, but passage will still need a two-thirds majority of the 15-member board.

Prior to its official meeting, the NOSB will hold a pair of seminars where speakers on both sides of the issue will be able to express themselves. There are also opportunities to submit written comments prior to the meetings, and during the meetings themselves speaking opportunities are included, though all the available slots have been taken at this point.

For the lay people on this topic, Frankel did articulate the basic proposals. In a newsletter to his constituents, he wrote, “The proposals would make aeroponics, aquaponics and hydroponics prohibited practices under Section 205.105 of the USDA Organic Regulations. Aeroponics would be defined as ‘a variation of hydroponic plant production in which plant roots are suspended in air and misted with nutrient solution. Aquaponics would be defined as ‘a recirculating hydroponic plant production system in which plants are grown in nutrients originating from aquatic animal waste water, which may include the use of bacteria to improve availability of these nutrients to the plants. The plants improve the water quality by using the nutrients, and the water is then recirculated back to the aquatic animals.’ Hydroponics would be defined as ‘any container production system that does not meet the standard of a limit of 20 percent of the plants’ nitrogen requirement being supplied by liquid feeding, and a limit of 50 percent of the plants’ nitrogen requirement being added to the container after the crop has been planted.’”

Presumably, the NOSB will vote on the proposals prior to adjournment on either Nov. 1 or Nov. 2. However, that is not certain. Many times since a similar proposal was agreed to by the NOSB in 2010, the issue has been kicked down the road, studied, restudied and debated. That may again be the outcome in November.