Food Groups Appeal Decision to Certify Hydroponic Crops as Organic

By Nadia Ramlagan

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — This week, the Center for Food Safety, along with a coalition of organic farmers and other groups, appealed a district court ruling, which gave the U.S. Department of Agriculture the green light to continue labeling hydroponically grown produce as organic.

Hydroponic operations grow crops using water-based nutrient solutions without any soil, and it’s expected more supermarket produce such as tomatoes and strawberries will be grown hydroponically in the coming decades.

Sylvia Wu, senior attorney at the Center for Food Safety, said the 1990 Organic Foods Production Act specifies for a crop to be certified organic, it must be grown with measures designed to build soil fertility, but she added major hydroponic growers and federal agencies see things differently.

“The issue of whether or not hydroponic crops can be sold under the organic label has been an ongoing debate between USDA and the organic community for more than a decade,” Wu explained.

There currently are more than 2,000 hydroponic operations in the U.S. Supporters of certification contended hydroponic vegetables and fruits are grown without synthetic pesticides and so can be considered organic.

Wu acknowledged there are numerous benefits to hydroponically grown foods, including production, using less water, and supplying fresh produce to urban areas and food deserts, but she argued because organic farming is about cultivating the soil, the label shouldn’t apply to hydroponics.

“The word ‘organic’ in organic farming stems from the idea of organic matter in the soil,” Wu asserted.

As many farmers turn to hydroponic foods to bet against increasingly unpredictable growing conditions, Wu believes the issue should matter for consumers.

“The organic label is supposed to capture the standards required to bring out the benefits of organic farming,” Wu concluded.

According to industry reports, the hydroponic crop-growing industry is expected to expand amid concerns about the nation’s food supply chain prompted by the pandemic, as well as consumer demand for fresh produce.