( USDA )

(UPDATED,  Jan. 31) The U.S. Department of Agriculture wants organic growers to know that hydroponic, aquaponic, and aeroponic operations can still be certified under USDA organic regulations.

The announcement drew quick criticism from the Organic Farmers Association, which said in a news release that the issue of certified organic hydroponic operations was “far from settled” and claimed the USDA is ignoring opportunities “to increase confidence in the organic seal.”

In a Jan. 25 notice, the USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service acknowledged there has been extensive debate on hydroponic, aquaponic, and aeroponic operations since the fall 2017 meeting of the National Organic Standards Board. The agency said it was posting the notice to clarify the status of the operations.

“For these products to be labeled as organic, the operation must be certified by a USDA-accredited certifying agent, and maintain compliance with the USDA organic regulations,” according to the notice.

The agency said the National Organic Standards Board has recommended prohibiting aeroponic systems in organic production. While it considers the recommendation, aeroponic production methods remain allowed.

The USDA also announced that it has published transcripts and presentations from the fall meeting of the National Organic Standards Board on its website.

The notice from the USDA drew a strong response from the Organic Farmers Association.

“The USDA has several times in the past sought guidance from the National Organic Standards Board on the advisability of allowing hydroponic production to be certified organic,” Francis Thicke, the association’s policy committee chair and outgoing NOSB member, said in a news release. “This issue is far from settled.”

The Organic Farmers Association asserts that no legal justification accompanied USDA’s recent position of unconditional allowance for organic certification of hydroponic production. 

“The notice contained no OFPA or NOP rule citations to justify the novel position being taken by USDA,” Jim Riddle, Organic Farmers Association steering committee chair and former NOSB member, said in the release. “Further, the notice contained no guidance to certifying agencies on how to certify operations that do not comply with most NOP requirements.”

The issue of whether hydroponic operations should be certified as organic has been debated since 1995.