Should crops grown by hydroponics and aquaponics be allowed to obtain organic certification? The National Organic Program (NOP) created the Hydroponic and Aquaponic Task Force in September 2015 to answer this question. The task force investigated the production practices of hydroponics and aquaponics, and determined their alignment with organic standards in a report released at the end of July.
Hydroponic production is growing crops by placing the roots in nutrient-rich water or compost tea without the use of soil. Aquaponics uses the wastewater from farmed fish to supply nutrients to a hydroponic system, which in turn purifies the water. Since hydroponic and aquaponic crops are generally grown in greenhouses, the methods can help extend the growing season. Another benefit of hydroponics and aquaponics is the increase of water efficiency. This helps to reduce producers’ cost and supports water conservation. In essence, natural resources are preserved because excess water and fertilizer are captured and repurposed.
The contention within the organic community arises based on the spirit versus the letter of NOP organic regulations. The task force has come to the conclusion that the intent of organic regulations is to grow food in a way that causes the least harm to the earth’s soil, water and biological communities. Production systems should integrate practices that foster cycling of resources, promote ecological balance and conserve biodiversity. Additionally, consumers associate organic with healthy and nutritious, environmentally friendly, and chemical free; grown in soil is not an association that most consumers make with the term organic.
In 2010, the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) recommended not allowing hydroponics and aquaponics in organic certification. After reviewing, the task force has come to the same conclusion in its report, due to the principle that organic farming is an integrated system – starting with soil health. The reasoning is based on insufficient carbon and biology within the hydroponic and aquaponic systems. The NOP organic standard gives specific instructions in regard to maintaining healthy soil, and the lack of soil should disqualify hydroponics from organic certification.
The task force’s goal was to examine this issue and to make an informed decision on whether or not hydroponics and aquaponics can be classified as organic. The task force’s final report will be used to inform the NOSB in policymaking for its meeting in the fall. Unless the NOP takes the task force’s recommendation to issue updated policy, hydroponic and aquaponic methods are permissible.