A federal judge upheld the USDA's decision that organic farming does not require soil.

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USDA-certified "organic" food is touted for its environmental and health benefits. But broadly speaking, the "organic" label is just a set of rules created by the USDA's National Organic Program (NOP) and, as with any set of rules, gray areas exist. Just look at what the NOP has to say about allowed and prohibited substances: "Synthetic substances are prohibited unless specifically allowed," for example, newspaper; and "natural substances are allowed unless specifically prohibited," for example, arsenic. It doesn't get much less cut and dry than that.

So what about hydroponics? On one side, hydroponic producers like to tout their own benefits which can include using less water and pesticides. Meanwhile, the other side can retort that hydroponics typically use manmade structures, which isn't particularly the way nature intended it. In the middle is the U.S. government, who controls the USDA organic seal and has to pick a side. And once again, a federal judge has ruled that hydroponic products are worthy of organic status.

Greenhouse of Hydroponic Lettuce seedlings
Credit: VW Pics / Contributor/Getty Images

Over the years, hydroponics have proven to be a controversial topic for the National Organic Standards Board—and yet, despite the debate, hydropic farming has continued to receive approval. Most recently, a 2017 vote gave soil-free farming its approval by the slimmest of margins, 8 to 7. Not content with this decision, last year, the Center for Food Safety (CFS), along with a coalition of organic farmers, sued the USDA. But on Friday, Chief U.S. District Judge Richard Seeborg ruled in the government's favor, stating the USDA had "reasonably concluded the applicable statutory scheme does not exclude hydroponics from the organic program."

At the heart of the current debate is whether the organic rules require soil or not. As Judge Seeborg explained in his decision, the regulations do state that an "organic plan shall contain provisions designed to foster soil fertility." However, he later agreed with the USDA's arguments that "soil fertility provisions apply only to production systems using soil" and "that Congress did not intend to prohibit the certification of soil-less agricultural systems."

Needless to say, CFS was unhappy with the decision. "Under the Court's ruling, hydroponic producers can sell their crops as organic without building soil fertility, yet organic farmers growing food in soil have to meet various soil-building requirements to be certified organic," Sylvia Wu, CFS's senior attorney who served as counsel on the case, stated according to Food Safety News. "This double standard violates the very purpose of the organic label and is contrary to the federal organic act. We are analyzing all our legal options and will continue to work hard to defend the meaning of the organic label."

Meanwhile, Lee Frankel, executive director of the Coalition for Sustainable Organics, which advocates for organic hydroponics, applauded the decision. "Our membership believes that everyone deserves organic. The decision is a major victory for producers and consumers working together to make organics more accessible and the supply more resilient," she was quoted as saying. "The court preserves historically important supplies of berries, tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, mushrooms, leafy greens, herbs, sprouts, and microgreens that are frequently grown using containers or other hydroponic organic systems. In addition, the lawsuit threatened the nursery industry that provides many of the seedlings used by organic growers planting both in open fields as well as greenhouses."