Urban Organics started an aquaponic operation growing certified organic leafy greens in 8,000 square feet in an old Hamm’s beer brewery in 2011. Photo courtesy Urban Organics Pentair Group

Do hydroponics, aeroponics and aquaponics fit into the organic category?

U.S. regulators appear poised to answer that long-debated question. And, depending on what they say, their ruling could shake up the organics business.

The National Organic Standards Board — an advisory body to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Organic Program — reserved a spot for discussion and possibly a vote on the issue at its Oct. 31 to Nov. 2 meeting in Jacksonville, Fla.

For two decades, controversy has simmered over whether soil is essential to grow organic produce. USDA-approved organic certifiers have been permitted to license hydroponic operations as organic by the National Organic Program. Some agencies have certified hydroponic operations and some haven’t.

It’s a high-stakes debate, and both sides have valid concerns, said Michael Castagnetto, vice president of global sourcing with Eden Prairie, Minn.-based Robinson Fresh.

If the NOSB recommends that hydroponics and similar should remain certifiable as organic produce, it could lead to more investment in hydroponic operations, he said.

There also might be concern that the value of organic certification could diminish and soil-based growers might reduce organic output, Castagnetto said.

Rob Verdi, president and CEO of Bella Verdi Farms, a Dripping Springs, Texas-based hydroponic grower-shipper of leafy greens, lettuces and microgreens, said his products meet the spirit, if not the letter, of organic production requirements.

“You have to go back to the genesis of the USDA organic program, which was designed to be a bit of carrot and stick for organic farming, related to Clean Water Act, to move off those pesticides that were problematic,” Verdi said.

St. Paul, Minn.-based aquaponics grower Urban Organics currently carries USDA Organic certification for its kale, cilantro and other leafy greens it ships to nearby retailers in the organics-hungry Twin Cities area.

Co-founder Dave Haider said he wasn’t sure how a change in the rules might affect the operation he started in 8,000 square feet in an old Hamm’s beer brewery in 2011.

“From a daily operations standpoint, it wouldn’t change a lot for us, but from a labeling standpoint, it would,” he said.

The company is proceeding, and growing, and, in fact, is just putting the finishing touches on a new 90,000-square-foot plant on the other side of town.

A rule change obviously would alter the landscape for organic produce in general, Haider said.

Want to know more about organic produce? Register for The Packer’s inaugural Global Organic Produce Expo, Jan. 25-27, in Hollywood, Fla.