The Classification Gap of Organic Hydroponic Food and Why It Affects You


Co-authored by Tinia Pina and Riyana Razalee

Background
The National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) is the preeminent authority chosen by Congress to advise the USDA on organic matters. In 2010, the NOSB recommended that hydroponically grown food should not be considered certified organic. This made it significantly harder for our society to reach a point where it finds some balance with nature by harvesting food waste from the planet using zero-waste cultivation methods. NOSB’s recommendation stemmed from the fact that hydroponic systems do not include soil-plant ecology, something inherent in organic farming systems.

However, seven years later, during a 2017 NOSB meeting, while its board members were still divided on this issue, the final deciding vote was in favor of hydroponics being certified organic. Pro-hydroponics board members advocated that the organic label was appropriate for any crop produced without the materials that are prohibited in organic production. The pro-soil board members argued that organic production is also about the activities that farmers carry out, such as crop rotation, no-tillage, etc. The pro-hydroponics case prevailed and now hydroponically-grown food received the certified organic label. Last year, in 2019, in a dramatic move, the Center for Food Safety filed a petition with the USDA, urging for the exclusion of hydroponically grown produce from organic certification. How this will pan out and what changes might come about remain to be seen. The crux of the debate stems from a classification gap. But, understanding the impact of this classification gap is key.

In this article, we’ll discuss two topics pertaining to the classification of hydroponic crops grown exclusively with products that consist of compost (or degraded organic waste) properties, and how we need additional research in finding an equivalent classification to “organic” for hydroponically grown food.

Grown in the Ground – Grown in a Nutrient Solution Continuum

A closer look at the definition of what’s grown in the ground and what’s grown in a nutrient solution however indicates that it is actually surprisingly difficult to parse or breakdown. This is because modern day agricultural growing can happen in a variety of hybrid methods. Of the four main growing methods, only the first two (from the left) have been widely accepted as certified organic. The other three methods have been less known to receive organic certification.





As shown in the graph above, there is no distinction among possible hydroponic organic fertilizer compositions. This is a terrible injustice to anyone who hopes to live in a world more balanced or sustainable. While the majority of hydroponically grown food uses synthetic inorganic mineral salts, Re-Nuble stands out in the industry because they manufacture food waste into plant-based fertilizer. This enables soilless farms to grow soil-quality organic produce from a carbon-neutral, closed loop production. Proponents and practitioners of hydroponic organic certification say that their farms could be more energy-efficient and water-efficient than soil-based farms, and that they can reduce transportation costs because they can be built almost anywhere. Re-Nuble is striving to be the world’s enabler of closed loop food.

The clear delineation between Re-Nuble fertilizers and chemical fertilizers thus presents a classification gap for crops grown with Re-Nuble products. If all of the inputs in a hydroponic system are organic and the system uses biological composting processes to grow a crop, then shouldn’t the yields be considered organic?

What is “soil”?

According to a 2016 report by the Hydroponic and Aquaponic Task Force (HATF), organic farming is the “continuous restoration” of soil by adding combinations of manure, compost and natural rock to feed the soil, not the crops. In contrast, hydroponic crops use a soilless substrate such as rockwool, coco coir, hydrocorn, perlite or vermiculite, as the bed for seeds or seedlings. By definition, hydroponic crops do not use soil, which forms the basis of the pro-soil debate.


This leads to another deceptively complicated concept: defining what is considered “soil”.  The HAFT report cites previous Crops Committee documents, which posed the question of whether growing media that are “predominantly compost and compostable plant materials be considered ‘soil?’”

In this context, such a question is ambiguous, because organic farming is built on the premise of nurturing soil to create “accompanying ecologies”. As the report notes, earthworms, protozoa, fungi, bacteria, antinomycetes and other soil dwelling organisms can exist in compost. Therefore, for all intents and purposes, compost is soil.

We at Re-Nuble thus pose the question – if we use composting-like processes, can our hydroponic system be an ecological extension of soil? 

Why Should We Care?

The lack of clarity in the organic classification system for hydroponically grown food could pose challenges to the indoor agriculture industry both as a threat to create a national, universal organic certification and as a threat to competitive pricing for hydroponically grown food. The demand for organic produce in the US continues to rise, reaching a new record high in 2018 - $52.5 billion in sales, up 6.3% from the previous year. The “organic” certification on produce has a large and measureable value. Growers who grow food hydroponically would not be able to access that well-needed extra revenue.

Furthermore, all US farmers are taking the brunt of weather and climate stress – and this will only get worse over time. The 2018 National Climate Assessment reported that many US crops are likely to see declines as growing season temperatures rise, severe droughts strike farming regions, and more destructive disasters like wildfires and storms hit croplands.

This is further exacerbated by political issues such as the US-China trade war and economic turmoil. In 2019 alone, Chinese imports of US agriculture products fell by almost 20%. While the USDA took measures to assist the agriculture industry, such as paying out a record $4.2 billion to farmers for the land they couldn’t plant for the year, the option for farmers to turn to hydroponic systems would not just help mitigate further production losses, but it would also allow the US to grow its GDP, while also remaining food secure.

Therefore, we propose a new system of classification for hydroponically grown food. An obvious method of classification that makes a lot of sense is whether the used nutrients contain chemicals or non-plant inputs. Knowing that there is a wide range of hydroponic growing systems, we welcome your thoughts on the issue. As a category leader who has figured out the science and the engineering -- the dissolving of the minerals and the mastering of the recirculation -- we at Re-Nuble would welcome the opportunity to sit down and work with the USDA to explore this hydroponic “organic” classification question. In the future, we hope to see the USDA study and examine its feasibility further.  

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