Can vertical farms be certified organic?

Answer: Farmers value the USDA Certified Organic label?and consumers are often willing to pay a premium price for products that are certified organic. But can crops grown in vertical farms qualify for this valuable certification? There’s an ongoing debate about certification between the vertical farming community and organic regulators that set the organic certification standards.
The USDA National Organic Program (NOP) sets national standards for the production, handling, and processing of organic agricultural products. In addition, the NOP oversees mandatory certification of organic production. A National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) advises USDA in setting the standards upon which the NOP is based. Producers who are certified to have met standards set by the NOP may label their products “USDA Certified Organic,” as allowed by regulation.
NOSB and USDA have defined organic agriculture as more than just a lack of the use of pesticides, herbicides, and artificial fertilizers. Certified organic crops must be grown in a holistic system. Here’s a 2010 recommendation by NOSB for the definition of organic agriculture (NOSB, 2010): “Organic agriculture is an ecological production management system that promotes and enhances biodiversity, biological cycles and soil biological activity. It is based on minimal use of off-farm inputs and on management practices that restore, maintain and enhance ecological harmony.”
Because soil isn’t present in vertical farming production (which consists of hydroponic, aeroponic, or aquaponic systems), a vertical farm would have difficulty meeting this strict definition of organic agriculture, since there is no “soil biological activity.” But NOP is now allowing some organic certification agencies to award organic certification to hydroponic operations if those operations can prove they use only organic inputs in their operation and meet other certification criteria.
Some national certification agencies (such as California Certified Organic Farmers) have already certified organic hydroponic operations, while other regional certification agencies are refusing to certify hydroponic and other growing systems that aren’t soil-based. The debate over whether crops grown in vertical farms can be certified organic is likely to continue.
Ready to learn more? Check out the ATTRA publication Vertical Farming, which introduces commercial-scale vertical farming and discusses the recent growth of vertical farms in urban areas. It describes the major types of vertical farms and discusses environmental issues with vertical farms. It also includes a list of the major vertical farms in the United States.
NOSB. 2010. Production Standards for Terrestrial Plants in Containers and Enclosures: Formal Recommendation by the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) to the National Organic Program (NOP). April 29.