Opinion: With Organic, the USDA Should Side with Science | Civil Eats

Opinion: With Organic, the USDA Should Side with Science

Aquaponic farm advocate Marianne Cufone argues that the time is right for the USDA to expand the types of crops that can earn the organic label.

Editor’s note: Starting today in Jacksonville, Florida, the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) is convening one of its twice-yearly public meetings. This week, the board is considering proposed changes to the National Organic Program (NOP) to include aquaponic, hydroponic, and aeroponic crops in the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Organic certification. Civil Eats invited proponents and opponents of the change to state their case. (You can read the counter-argument here.) The NOSB can offer guidance, but the final decision remains with the USDA, and it is unclear what, if any, changes the agency plans to make to the NOP.

[Update: The NOSB on November 1 voted to allow hydroponic production under the USDA Organic certification.]

Defining certified USDA organic may sound simple, but it has proven very complex when it comes to hydroponic and aquaponic growing, and lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have voiced concern about the future of organic. Even regulators tasked with enforcing the rules struggle to agree on exactly what the certification means. This summer, Senator Pat Roberts (R-Kansas) drove this point home when talking about organic commodity crops, saying the NOSB’s “dysfunction” had “prevent[ed] farmers that choose organic from utilizing advancements in technology and operating their business in an efficient and effective manner. Simply put, this hurts our producers and economies…”

Currently, the NOSB defines an organic system as one that cycles nutrients to the plants in order to “promote ecological balance, and conserve biological diversity.” Similarly, the federal Organic Foods Production Act states that organic farming practices should either enrich soil or not harm it. Many hydroponic and aquaponic farms meet, and sometimes even exceed, these standards. They should be eligible for USDA Organic certification.

Rather than welcoming these eco-efficient farming methods, some growers have argued that hydroponic and aquaponic farm products should be disqualified from the organic label because they do not utilize soil in the traditional sense of the word. These “dirt-first” farmers ignore the intent of organic regulations. The biology of a system is what makes it organic, not the medium the plants are grown in. The dirt-only camp often oversimplifies “soil” as merely earth. “Soil” is better understood as an active biological environment that helps plants break down nutrients into food. Science shows that aquaponic farms that qualify for USDA organic certification do exactly that.

Recirculating hydroponic and aquaponic farms work by cycling nutrient-enriched water through a nearly closed-loop system to grow produce and/or fish. They’ve been tailored to eliminate use of antibiotics, genetic modification, and synthetic chemicals, and can often even grow more plants faster in a smaller space by tapping into natural processes. Recirculating farms also use less water and energy than most traditional dirt-based systems.

We’ll bring the news to you.

Get the weekly Civil Eats newsletter, delivered to your inbox.

The exclusion of hydroponic and aquaponic food producers is in truth about more than the meaning of soil. It’s mainly about access to the $39 billion annual organic food market. Allowing qualifying hydroponic and aquaponic farms to be certified as USDA organic increases competition among organic farmers, and the dirt-firsters would of course prefer less competition.

It is important for the USDA to allow hydroponic and aquaponic farms to keep their organic certifications to send a clear message that the agency values sustainability and innovation in U.S. agriculture, goals that are at the center of the nationwide local food movement and spur growth of urban and rural farms alike. The USDA often laments the lack of new, younger farmers entering the workforce; discouraging hydroponics and aquaponics will certainly also put off new young farmers who have invested time and resources into these practices.

As the NOSB meets to discuss the organic standards, it should note its responsibility to support an organic market where farmers compete to grow the most sustainable, resource-efficient food. In our research, we have found that including hydroponics and aquaponics in the market promotes competition and innovation among water and dirt-based growers alike for the benefit of consumers and our planet.

Thank you for being a loyal reader.

We rely on you. Become a member today to read unlimited stories.

Marianne Cufone is a professor and manager of the environmental law program at Loyola University New Orleans and the executive director of the Recirculating Farms Coalition, a collaborative group of farmers, educators, non-profit organizations and many others committed to eco-efficient and innovative farming. She was also on the task force that submitted recommendations about hydroponic and aquaponic organic certification to the National Organic Standards Board. Read more >

Like the story?
Join the conversation.

  1. Michael Roberts
    As a student of organics as well as someone who grows produce and protein through aquaponics, I disagree. While we should have some sort of marker for sustainability in the marketplace for hydroponic and aquaponic products, it should not be under the "Organic" auspice.

    The "Organic" of Organics is in fact the organic matter of the soil. I don't see how a closed system can call itself soil-building with a straight face. While it is true that there are incredible benefits to enclosed production systems, to call them Organic is an abuse of the term.

    Consider me unconvinced.
    • Jake
      Ponds have soil. Aquaculture
  2. Jake
    I think with the proper guidelines put in place hydroponic growing could be and should classified organic.
    This process if not using biocides, pesticides, and all the other synthetically made biocides, and or GMO crops and a more natural way of "feeding" the crops ( not just dumping in fertilizer), but coupling with aquaculture, and a water based composting system can be quite ecologically sound and very productive. After all the highest rates of growth occur from water based systems.
    • Michael Roberts
      Can you show me the link to hydroponics or aquaponic systems that build soil? To me that sounds like a paradox. You refer to pond based aquaculture, but those systems aren't what this debate is about. The systems in question are closed-loop.

      For instance, our system uses fish tanks that drain into tubs of inert lava rock and recirculate. No synthetic fertilizer (plenty of N from the fish poop) no pesticides, certainly no GMO.

      But do you know what it doesn't do? Build soil. More specifically, it does nothing for the long term _organic_ matter in the soil from which the term Organic derives.

      Is it healthy? Yes. Ecologically sound? On many counts. Is it Organic? No.
  3. annie
    well, this opinion just moved my admiration for your work far down the bar. apparently i am not as familiar with your "grass-roots" position on organic farming as i thought i was. from here on in i will believe a portion of what you say..

  4. Get your own standard, stop trying to dilute that which the government coopted and corrupted. Organic always was about the earth, not the dirt, not the "nutrients," and definitely not about regulation. The EARTH. Got it?
  5. Erich V. Bremer
    This article proports to be on the side of science; however, the “scientific arguments” made within are without factual basis and/or are purposefully misleading. To begin with, your history is wrong. Organic agriculture has always been agriculture achieved through restoring and improving natural – not synthetic – systems. Look at the literature going back to the late 1800’s and you will know this is undeniable. A hydroponic system, with all of it's plastic, artificial lighting, constant reliance on offsite fertility and pest control products is not a natural system. Secondly, the NOSB has never prevented hydroponic from being certified organic. They can’t. They only make recommendations to the USDA’s National Organic Program. The NOP's organic regulations, since publication, have had requirements for maintaining and improving soil biological health and enhancing the natural environment of the farm - allowing the natural system to better regulate itself without so much reliance on off farm inputs. The certification agents who have decided to certify hydroponic production as organic must ignore vast and important sections of the existing regulations to do so. The USDA has looked the other way on this for yars. By allowing hydroponic to infiltrate the organic industry, the USDA has allowed our country to become the ONLY country in the world with an organic standard that allows hydroponic to be certified. The NOSB does not define what organic is – the National Organic Program does. Per the NOP’s own fact sheets, organic agriculture is “the application of a set of cultural, biological, and mechanical practices that support the cycling of on-farm resources, promote ecological balance, and conserve biodiversity“. To say that a hydroponic, or even a container growing system, could ever meet this general description is dishonest. To say the definition of soil is “an active biological environment that helps plants break down nutrients into food“ is ridiculous. That is not even close to what the academic definition of soil has even been, and it only focuses on a very narrow aspect of what the soil is, and what it does. Look it up please. To say “Recirculating farms also use less water and energy than most traditional dirt-based systems.“ is also misleading. What is a traditional “dirt-based” system anyway? Scientifically compare the energy and water use of soil-based certified organic farm versus the energy and water use of a giant indoor recirculating hydroponic operation, and then get back to us. The truth is, hydroponic does not fit into the organic regulations. It never has. The NOSB knew that in 2010 when they told the NOP as much in a formal recommendation. The NOP did not act, and certifiers started to make more and more money certifying ever-larger and larger hydroponic operations. Then, around 2014, the NOP told the NOSB to convene another committee to make a recommendation on hydroponic, so they did. The result – hydroponic did not fit into the existing regulations. After a few more years and a lot of lobbying money spent, the NOP had the NOSB take up this issue again in 2017 – and what do you know! Third time was the charm for corporate agriculture. Now, the NOP has the recommendation they have been trying to secure for their industry buddies. That’s fine. Have at it. The organic industry was not built by the Johnny-Come-Lately capital investment rich hydroponic industry. It was built by hard working family farmers, growing healthy crops in healthy soils. Those family farms will be at an extreme competitive disadvantage since they are now forced to compete with large-scale operations who are not required to meet all of the same regulatory requirements. Watch and see what happens to the organic label and the organic movement when the organic consumer finds out the truth. Thanks Civil Eats for being a small part in trying to bring down the most successful agricultural trend since the moldboard plow.
  6. LEH
    "The dirt-only camp often oversimplifies “soil” as merely earth. “Soil” is better understood as an active biological environment that helps plants break down nutrients into food."

    noun: soil; plural noun: soils
    the upper layer of earth in which plants grow, a black or dark brown material typically consisting of a mixture of organic remains, clay, and rock particles.
  7. AgSciGuy
    Organic produce used to be equated (falsely) with using "natural" farming methods. Growing crops without soil, under artificial lights is far from natural. How "natural" is the glass in these green houses? How much fossil fuel is use and damage done to our precious environment to produce these artificial materials? This all illustrates that "organic food" is just a marketing scam!!!
  8. AgSciGuy
    “Soil is better understood as an active biological environment that helps plants break down nutrients into food. "

    I have taken many soil science classes, and I have never seen a definition like this.

    Also, plants don't "break down nutrients into food". They use sunlight to convert CO2 + H2O into carbohydrates. Other nutrients are needed for the plant "machinery" that performs this manufacturing process.

More from



hickens gather around a feeder at a farm on August 9, 2014 in Osage, Iowa. Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images

What Happened to Antibiotic-Free Chicken?

With the biggest poultry company in the country backtracking and other commitments to raising healthier birds unmet, the future is rockier than it once seemed.


Nik Sharma Offers His Top Tips for Home Cooks to Fight Recipe Fatigue

Nik Sharma baking at left, and tossing a chickpea dish at right. (Photo credit: Nik Sharma)

Far From Home, the Curry Leaf Tree Thrives

Zee Lilani of Kula Nursery stands among her curry leaf tree starts in Oakland, California. (Photo credit: Melati Citrawireja)

A Guide to Climate-Conscious Grocery Shopping

Changing How We Farm Might Protect Wild Mammals—and Fight Climate Change

A red fox in a Connecticut farm field. (Photo credit: Robert Winkler, Getty Images)