(UPDATED Nov. 23) Hydroponic operations can still be certified as organic, but the National Organic Standards Board could revisit the issue in April.

When the board, which gives recommendations to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Organic Program, met in mid November, the hot-button issue of whether to allow growing operations that don’t use soil to be organic was on the agenda. The board sent the controversial question back to a subcommittee for further research.

The crops subcommittee of the NOSB had proposed that hydroponics, aeroponics, or aquaponics aren’t consistent with organic production.

“Basically the board talked about it quite a bit during the meeting, they had a lot of public comments on it, but they weren’t comfortable on voting on a final recommendation to USDA, so they sent it back to the crops subcommittee for further review,” said Sam Jones-Ellard, spokesman for the USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service. Almost 200 people attended the Nov. 16-18 meeting in St. Louis, Jones-Ellard said Nov. 21.

The next meeting of the National Organic Standards Board is set for April 19-21 in Denver. Beginning in January, the 15-member board will have five new members, with five current members leaving the board.

Jones-Ellard said the board did pass a resolution that stated it was the consensus of the current board that hydroponic operations (not based in soil) should not be allowed to be certified as organic. However, that is only a resolution and not a recommendation to the USDA, Jones-Ellard said.

“We will sit tight and wait on a final recommendation from NOSB but as it stands now those (hydroponic) operations can be certified as long as they are in compliance with the regulation,” Jones-Ellard said.

In the past, the NOSB made conflicting recommendations to the USDA about the issue — one in 1995 saying hydroponic and other soilless media methods could be certified, and then in 2010 recommending that hydroponics should not be certified as organic.

The Cornucopia Institute and other groups have said that hydroponic operations should not be certified organic because they don’t include soil. The group also has called into question the organic certifications of specific hydroponic operations, filing complaints against Driscolls and Wholesum Harvest Family Farms.

Advocates of hydroponic methods, including the Coalition for Sustainable Organics, argue water-based growing methods can efficiently produce fresh fruits, vegetables and herbs in accordance with all of the relevant U.S. organic laws and regulations.

According to a statement from Lee Frankel, executive director of the Coalition for Sustainable Organics, the group is encouraged by the action of the National Organic Standards Board.
“We agree making any decision now would be irresponsible until such a time as the board is able to weigh all competing views,” Frankel said in the statement. “Only after a full, fair and open airing of all of the relevant issues should a decision regarding organic certification of containerized growing methods be considered.”
Frankel said organic is and should continue to be defined by how plants are nourished and protected from pests and diseases. Organic container methods use the same natural inputs as open field growers, and he said containerized growers have been certified organic by the USDA for 25 years.
“Making arbitrary changes to existing organic rules are a mistake that would stifle sound and sensible growing methods, putting hundreds of growing operations out of business and limiting the amount of organic produce available to the public,” he said in the statement.