Several groups presented positions about hydroponics as an organic growing method at the National Organics Standards Board meeting in Denver, but there will not be a vote to send a recommendation forward this session. 

The NOSB’s three-day spring meeting ends April 21, and it is likely a recommendation will be made on the issue, but no formal vote.

“We presented, and so did 15-20 growers in support of organic growth in containers,” said Lee Frankel, executive director for the Coalition for Sustainable Organics. “It went well, and the most encouraging part was the members of the NOSB being more engaged with their follow-up questions and wanting to understand the issue better.”

Mark Kastel, co-director of organic policy watchdog Cornucopia Institute, said NOSB meetings are focused on defining what “organics” means.

“We walk a fine line. We have to make rules that aren’t so onerous that farmers can’t make a living, but also not sell out these values that have proven to resonate strongly with consumer populations,” he said.

The Organic Trade Association, which hasn’t stated an opinion on the issue, wants the NOSB to reach a consensus on definitions for aeroponics, hydroponics, aquaponics, and container production, Nate Lewis, farm policy director at OTA, said in an e-mail.

“Only after NOSB have developed agreed upon definitions for these systems can they start to discuss which systems should or should not be allowed under organics,” he said.

The soonest vote  on the issue would be the next meeting in the fall, if the subcommittee brings a proposal to be voted on. If it requests more information, the vote would be delayed further.

“The NOSB Crops Subcommittee developed a discussion document in advance of the meeting. That, and the public comments provided before and during the meeting, will inform NOSB deliberations on this topic,” Jennifer Tucker, associate deputy administrator of the AMS National Organic Program, said in an e-mail.

That document, which included proposals and discussion topics from the subcommittee seems to suggest it supports banning produce from organic certification if grown using hydroponics, aeroponics or aquaponics.

Kastel said if vote happened during the meeting, board members would support a 2010 recommendation to remove hydroponics from organic labeling.

“THE NOSB carefully reviewed this issue and came up with a recommendation in 2010, but the USDA refused to act on it because it was contrary to what the industry wanted,” he said.

Frankel said a significant amount of greenhouse vegetables are grown using the systems in the debate.

“The most recent Nielson report said that for tomatoes, cucumbers and bell peppers, 30% of those are coming from container and hydroponic systems,” Frankel said. “Changes in policies will cause severe disruptions in the marketplace. It’s a complicated subject, and we hope members of NOSB take their work seriously and come up with clear reasoning.”

Lewis chalks the delays up to board turnover.

“NOSB has not yet achieved consensus among its members regarding definitions, and without definitions a vote on prohibition cannot occur,” he said in the e-mail. “Additionally, there are five new members on the board as of January 2017, and the turnover on the board has contributed to a longer timeline for coming to a decision on the issue of organic hydroponics.”

Ultimately, hydroponics will be considered organic for a while longer.

“The systems have been certified for 15 years — since the USDA took over the certification programs from different private certification organizations,” Frankel said. “For people to revoke certification for people who have been in the business for a long time, that decision needs to be based on a justifiable reason.”