Organic versus Hydroponic: Who wins with non-decision by the National Organics Standards Board?

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The NOSB voted 10-4 to send back to committee the decision to allow hydroponic production to be organic certified. SuperGrow offers perspective and an alternative.

organic, hydroponic, terraponic, urban farming, sustainable, vertical farming

Inside the SuperGrow Container™ which uses "terraponics" (soil) to grow organic produce

Innovation, such as the terraponics SuperGrow Container™ is focused on the interests of the consumer. Accurate organic labeling that includes identification of the grow methodology being in soil or not will empower that consumer to make healthy choices

Some consider the 10-4 vote by the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) to send the decision whether hydroponic grown produce can be certified as organic back to committee as a victory. Others say the vote teeters between being irrelevant and helping everyone except field organic farmers. This leaves the consumer wondering, “What is organic?”

Deputy Administrator of the National Organic Program (NOP), Miles McEvoy, is quoted by members of The Cornucopia Institute present at the NOSB vote as saying in part “…even a ‘no’ vote today to allow hydroponics would not change the status quo of continuing to allow hydroponic operations ….” This is a pragmatic view of the NOSB’s role versus that of the NOP.

The NOP is the organic policy arm of the USDA which receives recommendations from the NOSB for regulations related to the organic industry. There is no requirement that the NOP adopt the NOSB’s recommendations, although there is an abundance of reason why it would.

The NOSB was established by the Organic Foods Production Act (OFPA) in 1995 and governed by the Federal Advisory Committee Act (FACA). The NOSB considers and makes recommendations on a wide range of issues involving the production, handling, and processing of organic products. Each NOSB member is appointed by the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture for a five-year term.

The NOSB’s standing recommendation since 2010 has been, in part, that “Growing media shall contain sufficient organic matter capable of supporting natural and diverse ecology. For this reason, hydroponic and aeroponic systems are prohibited.” This seems to be a very clear recommendation. Yet from 2010 up until the 2016 St. Louis NOSB meeting confusion between NOP’s policies and its web site rhetoric has led to certain Accredited Certification Agencies’ (ACA) certifying hydroponic grow operations as organic and allowing hydroponic grow operations outside the U.S. to be imported for organic sales within the U.S.

Appointing experts to make recommendations and then ignoring the recommendations seems counter to the intention of the establishment of the NOSB. Former high tech executive turned agri-technologist, James Massa, founder of Sustainable Essentials Enterprises, maker of the SuperGrow Container™, a soil base, terraponics container farm solution, has served as a member of a Presidential Advisory Committee. He offers this insight as to why recommendations might be ignored: “On the surface it appears this is a grab by Big Ag to move into the domain of the organic farmer, most of whom are small farmers, to gain access to the premium price the market will pay for produce labeled ‘organic’. That may well be the case. Yet, the complexities of state are always far greater than the complexity of the board room no matter how big or small that room is. The NOP is an arm of the United States government and is subject to such complexities.”

Massa continues with these examples: “This complexity results in U.S. policies that would make no sense to the board room, such as paying for farmers not to grow certain produce or subsidizing farmers to grow produce the U.S. market will not buy. Food is a national resource that can affect the U.S. economy, as well as global relations. There is a reason why the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) is commonly referred to as the ‘feed them instead of fight them’ agency. The Secretary of Agriculture has to be concerned about both the US consumer and the USDA’s contribution to the United State’s ability to feed the world. So, yes, NOP’s actions may be ‘politics’, but it may not be the type of politics people think.”

At the meeting it would appear Deputy Administrator McEvoy was asking for clarity which has already been given by the NOSB. Such clarity is also ubiquitous among other nations with Mexico, Canada, Japan, New Zealand, Holland, England, Germany, Italy, France, Spain, and 17 other European countries all prohibiting hydroponic production to be sold as organic. Yet, the NOP continues to not set forth policy which definitively states whether hydroponic grow methods, which use only water to provide nutrients to the plants, can be certified as organic. Many hydroponic growers in Mexico, Canada, and Holland export hydroponic produce to the United States for sales as certified organic.

What and how organic is defined is at the heart of the complexity. Massa shares, “Our Chief Science Officer at large, Ray Nielson, who contributed to the writing of the original National Organic Program, has indicated that a choice had to be made as to whether the definition of organic would be what it is or what it is not. To date the definition of organic has been based on what it is not. This has opened an argument to allow hydroponic and other types of non-soil grow methods to be certified as organic.”

Produce which is certified organic cannot have any type of pesticide, herbicide or adamant as part of the grow process that does not occur in a rich, natural, soil biosystem. Having such is considered to taint the grow process and the produce is no longer certified organic.

“The question now is whether having less than what occurs in a rich, natural, soil biosystem, as is the case with hydroponic grow methods, makes the produce grown not organic in the same way as adding chemically based pesticides, herbicides, and adamants that do not occur in a rich, natural, soil biosystem disqualifies produce as being organic”.

Sustainable Essentials Enterprises has pioneered a container farm grow methodology referred to as “Terraponics”. Terraponics uses organic soil, composting, and natural soil adamants combined with Sustainable Essentials Enterprises grow apparatus and methods to grow produce year round inside a specially outfitted shipping container, referred to as a SuperGrow Container™. This same terraponics methods, grow apparatus, and environmental controls can be used inside a converted warehouse, barn, or spare room, referred to as a SuperGrow Center™. Founder and CEO, James Massa, “It’s a sea of acronyms and self-interests at the St. Louis NOSB meeting. The non-decision by the NOSB helps everyone but organic field farmers. We believe innovation, such as the terraponics SuperGrow Container™ is focused on the interests of the consumer and that accurate organic labeling that includes identification of the grow methodology being in soil or not in soil will empower that consumer to make healthy choices.”

The Organic Trade Association (OTA), also present at the recent NOSB vote, indicated in a tweet on Friday, November 18, “#NOSB will continue its work on container production and decide the systems that are compatible with #organic principles”. The OTA encourages those interested to view page 52 of OTA's NOSB fall meeting PDF found here

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James Massa

Michele Keen
Creative Eden
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