Are Veggies Organic If They Aren't Grown In Soil? Here's What The New USDA Rules Say

This controversial move has created a stir among the traditional organic agriculture community.

November 8, 2017
hydroponic farming
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In a recent vote, the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB), an advisory committee to the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), voted to allow hydroponic and aquaponic growers to continue to be included in the National Organic Program. (Here's more on why organic matters.) 

Organic food sales are on the rise, even though currently only 1% of farmland in the U.S. is organic, and totaled $47 billion in the US in 2016, according to Business Insider. With this growing interest in the organic market, there has been controversy around whether hydroponic and aquaponic farms can be considered traditionally "organic," so it's no surprise that this decision made waves in the agricultural community.


Related: 8 Tips For Growing An Organic Vegetable Garden On A Budget

While organic farms typically consist of animal-friendly, natural soil farming practices with no chemicals, hydroponic farms grow plants inside soilless greenhouses in trays of nutrient solution, and aquaponic farms are a combination of hydroponics and aquaculture, using farmed fish to grow produce. The biggest objection traditional organic farmers have to hydroponic farms being certified as organic is this: there's no soil in hydroponics. 

Soil health is a core component of the organic movement, so the fact that hydroponics don't use soil makes them suspect to many traditional organic farmers—even if their growing methods don't use any chemicals or pesticides, either. 

(Brag your love of gardening with the Organic Life 2018 Wall Calendar, featuring gorgeous photographs, cooking tips and recipes, plus how to eat more—and waste less—of what's in season.)

Despite the news around this decision, aquaponic and hydroponic growers have already been selling certified organic products for many years, so nothing is immediately changing. This move is a signal, however, that these types of less traditional growing methods are here to stay, and are going to be included under the organic umbrella. Some people are happy about this, but many remain skeptical—or even angry. 

Watch the video below to learn about some incredible veterans who are becoming organic farmers.

“Several of us on the board felt that soil health should be part of the requirement for certification,” Fred Kirschenmann, a longtime leader in sustainable agriculture and president of Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture told New Food Economy, “We had a lot of debates about that, but finally the board became convinced that this was an important part of the future of organic certification, and we made that recommendation to the National Organic Standards Board.”


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Despite recommendations of farmers like Kirschenmann, the board ruled to include hydroponics and aquaponics in their organic standards anyway. There's no doubt that this debate will continue to be contested hotly in the agricultural community, as hydroponic growers work to be labeled officially organic, while traditional organic growers defend the need for organic certifications to include enhancing soil health.