The Progression of Organics in Hydroponics and Aquaponics

Posted on Posted in GRG Blog




By Michael J Brooks


                Going back just 25 years you will discover very little mention of hydroponics, and despite its many parallels to ancient agricultural techniques, even less mention of aquaponics.  These farming practices were so little known in fact, that the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990 failed to even address them.

It wasn’t until 2010, just five years ago, that the National Organics Standards Board (NOSB) made its first mention of hydroponics: recommending the method be prohibited from organic certification.  Despite the recommendation, the United States Department of Agriculture to the side of hydroponics farmers and advocates, and stated otherwise.  Currently there are certifiers across the country certifying hydroponics operations as organic.

When the NOSB first defined ‘organic’ in 1995, they gave no consideration to soil-less farming techniques, thus according to the definition they wrote, any farms using a soil-less growing concept could not be certified, or even considered an organic operation.

The USDA’s Nation Organic Program (NOP) redefined organic production in the Code of Federal Regulations in 2002 as “a production system that..respond[s] to site-specific conditions by integrating cultural, biological, and mechanical practices that foster cycling of resources, promote ecological balance, and conserve biological diversity.” – Organic? USDA Hydroponic and Aquaponic Task Force Wednesday, 18 March 2015 00:00 by Staff, Cornucopia | Op-Ed

The NOP definition does not require soil for a farm to be certified organic, but does require the cycling of resources and biological practices.  Aquaponics.  The only way to obtain an organic certification under this definition, with a soil-less method, is aquaponics.

Depending on one’s personal interpretation of organic production, it seems as though hydroponics itself does not meet the criteria outlined in the NOP definition.  If you are not getting your nutrients using biological means, such as with the fish in an aquaponics system, then it seems the only way you could obtain them otherwise is with off-farm inputs.  Although some nutrient supplementation can be achieved using a product off of the Organic Material Review Institute’s list of products pre-approved for organic use (OMRI list), or in some cases, a product that is certifiable otherwise, I think you would be hard-pressed to achieve all that is necessary.  This being the case, I believe that if you wish to commercially grow organic produce, and wish to do so using soil-less means, I strongly suggest exploring an aquaponics system to do so.

However, it would appear that often times these organizations are considering aquaponics to be a form of hydroponics rather than a separate thing entirely.  A lot of the information reads as though the difference just depends on what the farmer chooses to use to fertigate the plants in his hydroponic system; affluent from the aquatic animals of an aquaculture system, or off-farm inputs.  I suppose this is accurate, but it does cause for some confusion. Again, I don’t believe that you can have a truly organic hydroponics system unless it is in fact, an aquaponics system.  So when the NOP says “The organic certification of hydroponics is allowed”, sure it’s allowed, but it is only going to happen if the system is an aquaponics system.

That being said, accredited certifying agents (ACAs) are not required to certify a hydroponics system, they are simply allowed too, and before you go getting any ideas about selecting your certifying agency based on this, it’s important to know that they are also not required to disclose whether they have certified a hydroponics operation in the past.

Some ACAs known to certify hydroponic/aquaponic operations or have done so in the past include: CCOF, OTCO, Quality Assurance International (QAI), Indiana Certified Organic, Midwest Organic Services Association (MOSA), and Organic Certifiers, Inc. – Organic? USDA Hydroponic and Aquaponic Task Force Wednesday, 18 March 2015 00:00 by Staff, Cornucopia | Op-Ed

The most recent activity regarding this subject has been a back-n-forth between the NOP and the NOSB on whether or not ACAs should be permitted to certify hydroponics/aquaponics operations whatsoever.  Despite backing by conventional organic farmers, and he National Organic Coalition (NOC), the NOSB recommendation has remained unaccepted by the USDA’s NOP.

The NOC’s positon on hydroponic farming is as follows: “organic farmers are not just tillers of the soil, but also stewards of soil ecology on the farm.” also stated was “Until a clear definition has been provided by the NOP, certifiers should not be allowed to certify hydroponic systems.”

Days after the above statements were made by the NOC, the NOP released their own statement on their website that stated clearly that “Organic hydroponic production is allowed.”  That was repeated again in a statement, again posted to the NOP website, just months later.  It is currently clear how the USDA feels about organic certification in hydroponic production.

As someone who relies on the decision by the NOP, I support them first and foremost.  However, I hope to see them ad some form of guidance to ACAs in the near future.  Currently the ACAs are simply supported by the USDA’s NOP when certifying or attempting to certify a hydroponics/aquaponics operation, but unfortunately for the ACAs there are no guidelines or any compiled criteria for witch to follow when trying to make a determination regarding the organic certification of a hydroponics/aquaponics operation.  ACAs must do their best to fairly implement the conventional guidelines when certifying a hydroponics farm.  This is difficult do however, because of the many differences between the two agricultural techniques.  What happens is we have ACAs all over the country interpreting things differently, thus getting farmers everywhere worked-up about why one farmer can use what he cannot, as an input for his operation.  As a commercial organic aquaponics farmer, I could give you countless examples of this.  I have even seen where the same ACA approved an input for one farm, then disapproved it for another farm just an hour and half apart.  That was a direct result of two agents from the same agency interpreting the guidelines differently.  As a result, one farmer wound up forced to blow-the-whistle on the other, in an attempt to gain the approval he was unfairly denied, and created animosity between the two farmers.  Now how is that for sustainable farming?  Two farmers from the same area aren’t working together for the good of the industry now, and it’s because the USDA offers no guidance.  I appreciate what they have done, but they set our farms up for failure by only doing it half-way.

I have heard the seldom rumor about the hopeful rectification of this issue.  I have not however laid my eyes on any evidence that a solution has even been discussed.  Perhaps I haven’t looked hard enough…or perhaps we haven’t asked loudly enough.

Thank you for reading….that’s The Scuttlebutt!


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