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Should Hydroponic Enterprises Be Allowed Organic Certification?


The subject of hydroponics receiving organic certification is raging. On April 25, 2015, The Washington Post brought the issue to the mainstream public. While the debate has been going on for years, it has heightened recently. Jeff Moyer, longtime farm director of the Rodale Institute was quoted by the Washington Post as saying:

[quote]“Those heads of lettuce that are grown indoors? Yes, they are beautiful. But it’s just a green leaf with water in it. They can’t possibly have the vitamins and minerals that lettuce grown in the soil would have.”[/quote]

Moyers words hit the core of the debate – should soil-less forms of food production be allowed organic certification? There are two big forces in organic policy. First is the NOP – the National Organic Program – which is a division of the USDA and edicts the legal standards for organic certification. Second is the NOSB – The National Organic Standards Board – a 15 member advisory committee that is designed to make sure the NOP listens to the organic farming and consuming community.


On March 5th, 2015, the Cornucopia Institute issued a detailed White Paper on The Organic Hydroponics Dichotomy. The paper reveals the NOSB’s 2010 recommendations on organic hydroponics:

[quote]“§205.209(b) Growing media shall contain sufficient organic matter capable of supporting natural and diverse soil ecology. For this reason, hydroponic and aeroponic systems are prohibited.”[/quote]

In direct opposition to the NOSB, the USDA’s NOP on 2/21/14 posted on its Website that “Organic hydroponic production is allowed.”


The situation is ripe for confusion as the NOP’s statement is not legally official. Organic certifying agencies are now also taking sides. Pennsylvania Certified Organic and Oregon Tilth Certified Organic (OTCO) both supported the recommendation to prohibit hydroponics, citing the organic foundation of soil in organic agriculture.

The Organic Trade Association (OTA) supported the prohibition, because Canada prohibits hydroponic production from being certified organic. On the other side, the California Certified Organic Farmers (CCOF) strongly disagreed with the NOSB’s recommendation. CCOF stated that they have certified organic hydroponic operations and that they support both hydroponic and aeroponic systems as eligible for organic certification.

According to The Washington Post, a spokesman for the USDA noted that the government is convening a special task force to reconsider the water-based systems. To make matters more complicated, the organic certification debate is similarly split and complicated on organic fish farming and aquaponics – fish and plants together.

As it stands today, the current administration of the NOP program continues to allow certification of hydroponic operations, despite the recommendation of the NOSB that clearly states hydroponics is not compatible with organic production.


According to Cornucopia, The United States is one of the few countries that allows hydroponics to be labeled organic. Mexico, Canada, Japan, New Zealand, and 24 European countries (including Holland, England, Germany, Italy, France, and Spain) all prohibit hydroponic vegetable production to be sold as organic in their own countries. This means “organic” hydroponic producers in other countries are often growing exclusively for a U.S. market. Presently, the vast majority of the “hydroponic organic” produce sold in this country is grown in Mexico, Canada, or Holland.

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