We’re approaching the first anniversary of last year’s National Organics Standard Board (NOSB)/USDA clarification that cleared up any confusion about whether hydroponically grown produce is eligible for organic certification. It is.
The decision was not made lightly, nor in haste. The final ruling took nearly 15 years and, like the ongoing Hatfield and McCoy feud, verbal shots are still firing from both sides.
Technically, certifying hydroponic production has been allowed since 2002.
“At the Fall 2017 meeting, the NOSB reaffirmed certification for that system,” says a USDA spokesperson.
Actually, in 2010, NOSB recommended against allowing organic certification, writing, “Growing media shall contain sufficient organic matter capable of supporting natural and diverse soil ecology. For this reason, hydroponic and aeroponic systems are prohibited.”
The National Organic Program (NOP), however, determines what is allowed and what is not allowed. It ruled against NOSB’s recommendation.
With the 2017 decision, both bodies are finally in alignment.
Shortly after the decision, protests popped up around the country. The counterview was captured in a National Public Radio report.
“When the founding principles of organic go to soil health and regeneration rather than simply feeding plants nutrients, it goes to the foundation of what organic farming means.”
The Massachusetts chapter of Northeast Organic Farming Association (NOFA) and the National Organic Coalition are advocating for the NOP to halt certifying hydroponic producers until what the groups term, “more clear guidelines for what constitutes organic hydroponics are issued.”
So while the decision is made, some are hoping an appeal will overturn it.
Future Sales Likely to Attract More Organic Growers
We can complain till the cows come home. Now the central question is: Will the ruling have a transformative impact on the organic vegetable industry? Or will it ultimately be labeled as ‘no big deal’?
The number of certified organic hydroponic operations is still limited. Exact numbers are difficult to come by at this point, but the number is likely in the low two digits. Certification takes time and is infamous for its reams of paperwork. Numbers are likely to increase sharply over the next two to three years.
Organic food sales in the U.S. already post ongoing and off-the-chart revenue increases — from about $3 billion in 1997 to nearing the $50 billion mark in 2017. It’s a four-decade jump that represents a bit over 5% of total food sales in America.
“Consumers love organic. And while the market will see a steadier growth pace as it matures, it will continue to surpass the growth rate of the broader food market,” writes Laura Batcha, Executive Director of the Organic Trade Association, in her assessment of Nutrition Business Journal’s 2018 Organic Industry Survey.
That January 2018 Organic Industry Survey showed produce (with fresh produce accounting for 90% of the demonstrated rise) topping the 2017 category at $16.5 billion in sales, a 5.3% growth.
Global Players Will Play Major Role
The U.S. is late in joining the hydroponic and aquaponic game. Greenhouse vegetables are much more common in some countries, including Europe, Canada, and Mexico.
The global hydroponic vegetable market will likely double by 2025, a study by Transparency Market Research shows. It predicts lettuce will be the biggest winner, with a 33% share of the hydroponics market.
The 2017 International Trade Statistics Map (ITSM) shows the value of vegetables imported into the U.S. that year was $73.9 million, with the preponderance coming from North American Free Trade Association partners Mexico ($10 million) and Canada ($6 million).
“Europe is anticipated to dominate the global hydroponic vegetables market with a 41% share overall by the end of 2025,” ITSM writes.
Interestingly enough, two dozen European countries, as well as Mexico, Canada, and Japan, prohibit the selling of hydroponic vegetables as ‘organic,’ meaning that producers there frequently grow for an American market.
A European Parliament-approved resolution will prohibit importing hydroponically produced organic food from non-EU (European Union) nations beginning
January 2021. In essence, U.S. growers will no longer be able to ship hydroponically grown and organically certified food to the EU for sale as organic.
When you talk with growers and others invested in the hydroponics ruling, opinions vary on how important the ruling will ultimately be.
Arizona organic growers Wholesum Harvest and California’s Driscoll berries are the two big domestic names in the industry, and both say they are already delivering what consumers expect in an organic label — produce raised affordably, year-round, and without synthetic pesticides.
Theo Crisantes, Chief Operations Officer of Wholesum Harvest, USDA organically certified for the last 30 years, says he hasn’t seen any major shift in the organic vegetable industry as a result of the ruling.
“The status quo was maintained,” he says, “although it did spark some interest from different growers beyond the vegetable industry into a broader spectrum, like the berry industry. But we haven’t seen a real rush from other growers to join the industry because it takes both knowledge about how to grow as well as requiring a heavy capital investment.”
Because of the peak growing season at press time, Driscoll’s, an organic berry grower in 21 countries and a fourth-generation family business that controls roughly a third of the $6 billion U.S. berry market, wasn’t available for comment.
Agricultural/Biosystems Engineer Dr. Stacy Tollefson, University of Arizona’s Controlled Environment Agriculture Center, was part of the NOSB taskforce that made the recommendation to reclassify.
“I haven’t seen any real impact on the organic hydroponic industry since the certification confirmation decision was made,” she says. “It’s basically been business as usual, but with the knowledge that the threat no longer exists of losing that certification.
“I do think a lot of hydro growers who were starting to grow for the organic market slowed down production or put research and expansion on hold, and some new growers thinking of going that route might have held back because they didn’t know how the decision would go. But now they can call their product ‘organic.’ I think this will solidify their expansion plans.”
Francis Thicke, another NOSB member, farms in Iowa and has a different take on the matter. He is also a member of the Organic Farmers Association.
“The official allowance of organic certification of hydroponic production is having, and will continue to have, a big effect on organic vegetable production,” Thicke says.
“Although not labeled as hydroponic, some estimates are that about half of the certified organic tomatoes, peppers, and cucumbers are already hydroponically grown, with many growers wanting to begin or expand organic hydroponic production. With the USDA green light, I expect that soon most of the organic tomatoes, peppers, and cucumbers on the grocery store shelf will be hydroponically grown.”