Soil is included in the definition of organic, but hydropic farmers don’t have to meet the requirement.

Admittedly, when I think of “organic” produce, the first thing that comes to my mind is “no pesticides.” I’m not alone: A 2017 poll by the health food store chain Natural Grocers found that over 90 percent of respondents said avoiding pesticides was their main reason for buying organic. But receiving “USDA Organic” certification requires so much more. In fact, in answering the question “What is organic?” on the National Organic Program (NOP) Factsheet, the USDA doesn’t even mention pesticides.

“Organic is a labeling term for food or other agricultural products that have been produced using cultural, biological, and mechanical practices that support the cycling of on-farm resources, promote ecological balance, and conserve biodiversity in accordance with the USDA organic regulations,” the department wrote in 2016. “This means that organic operations must maintain or enhance soil and water quality, while also conserving wetlands, woodlands, and wildlife. Synthetic fertilizers, sewage sludge, irradiation, and genetic engineering may not be used.”

Indoor farming specialist lifting a rack of lettuce to reveal the hydroponic system and root structure.
Credit: AzmanJaka/Getty Images

For organic farmers, that “must maintain or enhance soil” can be a big deal—and it’s why many have now filed a lawsuit to prevent hydroponic farms from carrying a USDA Organic Seal. Because, yes, hydroponic farms may check the popular “no pesticides” box, but when it comes to helping the literal earth, hydroponic don’t do their part.

Last week, the Center for Food Safety (CFS), along with a coalition of organic farms and stakeholders, sued the USDA over its decision to allow hydroponic farms (or any operation that doesn’t use soil) to be certified as organic. Lee Frankel—the executive director of the Coalition for Sustainable Organics (CSO) which advocates “for the continued allowance of containerized growing methods under the National Organic Program”—points out that hydroponics has actually never been forbidden, stating that container-based farms “have been allowed to grow certified organic produce since the initiation of the NOP more than 25 years ago.” However, the CFS lawsuit points to the federal Organic Foods Production Act, which the group says “requires farms to build soil fertility in order to be certified organic”—language that, as mentioned above, is definitely used by the USDA.

“Healthy soil is the foundation of organic farming,” Andrew Kimbrell, CFS’s executive director, said in the announcement. “Organic farmers and consumers believe that the Organic label means not just growing food in soil, but improving the fertility of that soil. USDA's loophole for corporate hydroponics to be sold under the Organic label guts the very essence of ‘Organic.’”

Additionally, Sylvia Wu, CFS’s senior attorney and counsel for plaintiffs , provided a further legal argument. “The federal organic law unequivocally requires organic production to promote soil fertility,” she stated. “USDA's decision to allow mega-hydroponic operations that do nothing with soil to be sold as ‘Organic’ violates the law.”

In supporting the lawsuit, a number of organic farmers actually had positive things to say about hydroponics, but still believed they didn’t fit the definition of organic. “While I welcome the work that my friends in the hydroponic industry are doing, hydroponic production does not conform to the soil-building precepts of organic farming,” Jim Cochran—who owns the Californian organic strawberry farm Swanton Berry Farm, one of the plaintiffs—said in CFS’s press release. “I would be perfectly happy to have my strawberries compete with properly distinguished hydroponically-grown strawberries, without the latter piggybacking on an Organic label that has taken more than 30 years to develop and establish in the minds of consumers.”

Meanwhile, in rebuking the legal action, Frankel began by implying that hydropic farmers were simply keeping up with the times. “It is disappointing to see groups target pioneering organic farmers that use the most appropriate organic growing methods adapted to their site-specific conditions on their farms to meet the needs of consumers,” he said in a statement. “The members of the CSO are strongly committed to the integrity of organic standards and the organic label.”

He then suggested that the suit was intended to stifle competition. “The groups behind the lawsuit failed to convince the members of the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) to prohibit container and hydroponic production methods after significant industry debate and submission of public comments,” Frankel continued. “Instead of unifying the industry after the decision made by representatives of the organic community at the [National Organic Standards Board (NOSB)], the CFS is seeking to eliminate public input to achieve their goals of restricting competition to drive up the price of organics for organic consumers to allow favored producers to increase their profit margins.”

As Frankel states, this battle is far from a new one. And where it goes from here is anybody’s guess. When the 15-person NOSB voted on this issue in 2017, hydroponics won out by a margin of 8 to 7, so it seems to be a very divisive issue.