Answer: The National Organic Standards Board [NOSB; the advisory board to the USDA's National Organic Program (NOP)] and the NOP two years ago published a document addressing this question. Entitled Production Standards for Terrestrial Plants in Containers and Enclosures (Greenhouses), this document addresses issues of production including, but not limited to, hydroponics. It includes some of the arguments and reasoning with respect to hydroponics that has been considered by the National Organic Standards Board, as well as specific organic rulemaking change recommendations. Among NOSB's recommendations regarding greenhouse and containerized production, is the statement, "Potting mixtures devoid of or deficient in organic matter capable of supporting a natural and diverse soil ecology are prohibited. For this reason, hydroponic and aeroponic systems are prohibited." The document can be accessed online at www.ams.usda.gov/AMSv1.0/getfile?dDocName=STELPRDC5084677.
However, there are exceptions. A recent conversation with NOP revealed that there are 17 certified organic hydroponic operations at this time that are certified by USDA accredited certification agencies (ACAs). So, while a proposed rule change by the NOSB recommends that hydroponic systems be prohibited, some such operations, deemed by their certifiers to be compliant under existing NOP regulations, are still certified by ACAs.
It is critically important to understand the relationship between the NOSB and the NOP. The NOSB is an advisory board. While they make recommendations that may guide or lead to regulatory changes by the NOP, they themselves do not have regulatory authority, and their recommendations are just that. See the NOSB webpage at www.ams.usda.gov/AMSv1.0/NOSB for further description of the makeup and role of the NOSB. It begins with this statement: "NOTE: Recommendations made by the NOSB are not official policy until they are approved and adopted by USDA."
Clearly, the topic of hydroponics remains controversial, with a general notion that if hydroponic systems are to be certified organic, there needs to be additional clarity about the standards (regulations) regarding their certification.
For now, the future outcomes of the discussion are uncertain. At this time, some USDA-accredited certification agencies have certified hydroponic operations as organic, and others have stated that they would not certify them. In the meantime, it is essential to ask certifiers about their current position, and future plans with respect to hydroponic production, and await future clarification from the NOP.
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