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keep the soil organic: the truth about hydroponics

Posted: November 14 2015

Keep The Soil In Organic began as a petition started by Dave Chapman, the owner/grower at Long Wind Farm, and David Miskell of Miskell's Premier Organics.

Why are we doing this?

We are doing this because of our deep concern about a failure to maintain the integrity of the national organic standards. The way that the national standards work is that a group of federal bureaucrats from the USDA (called the National Organic Program, or NOP) are responsible for defining and administering organic standards for the United States. They are guided by an advisory committee of 15 people (called the National Organic Standards Board, or NOSB) representing organic farmers and consumers, who make informed recommendations to the USDA. The USDA has sometimes taken a long time to respond to a recommendation, but never before have they actually reversed a recommendation of the NOSB, which is charged with the mission of representing the organic community. The NOSB is a balanced group of committed, well informed people, who have taken their responsibility of guiding the federal organic standards very seriously. They do a great deal of good research and hold public hearings to hear all points of view, before making a recommendation. They only make recommendations on subjects requested by the NOP.

The recommendation

In 2010 the NOSB (National Organic Standards Board) submitted a recommendation to the NOP (National Organic Program) that soil-less vegetable production NOT be certified as organic. (See below). Until that time the issue of soil-less growing had never been addressed by the NOP, so the NOP asked the NOSB to come up with a recommendation. The NOSB voted 12 to 1 (with 2 abstentions) to prohibit soilless production. They wrote out a carefully worded, well thought out document, making their arguments clear. The recommendations of the NOSB are almost always eventually accepted by the NOP, but in this case the NOP has not acted on the NOSB recommendation, and three years later, the NOP continues to ALLOW hydroponic vegetable production to be certified as organic. The NOP has not offered any guidance to certifying agencies on this matter, nor any explanation. They have not held public hearings.  Many certifying agencies in the US are now refusing to certify hydroponic operations as organic.


Presently, the vast majority of the “hydroponic organic” produce sold in this country is grown in either Mexico, Canada, or Holland. ALL THREE OF THESE COUNTRIES PROHIBIT HYDROPONICALLY PRODUCED VEGETABLES TO BE SOLD AS ORGANIC IN THEIR OWN COUNTRIES. Mexico, Canada, Japan, New Zealand, and 24 European countries, (including Holland, England, Germany, Italy, France, Belgium, and Spain) all prohibit hydroponic vegetable production to be sold as organic in their own countries. There is no labeling to announce that these vegetables are hydroponically grown. Many coonsumers and produce managers have no idea.

The USA is alone

The NOSB has formally recommended that the United States join the international community in this common definition of organic produce. The USA is virtually isolated in the world in its decision to allow “soilless organic.” In essence, a small committee of the USDA is redefining "Organic". The consequences of this will go far beyond the US, creating pressure from hydroponic growers in other countries to redefine organic there as well.  Please let the USDA know that we won't allow this.

What is hydroponic farming?

Hydroponic growing is a soil-less system in which all the nutrients are supplied to the plants through an irrigation system. There is no soil involved. It is ingenious, and it works well, which is why virtually all the conventional greenhouse vegetables are grown this way. But it is NOT organic. There is no reliance on the microbial activity of the soil to provide the biological diversity that is the basis of organic growing. The old adage for organic farming has always been, “Feed the soil, not the plant.” Hydroponic growing is based on the opposite belief, “Feed the plant, not the soil.” We are not arguing with whether either system can be effective. Most of the world's vegetables grown in greenhouses are now grown hydroponically. Only the organic growers are following a different, more difficult path.

The stated NOP standard emphasizes that organic growing is based on caring for the soil. But their refusal to prohibit soil-less growing defies their own standard.