Originally published: Cornucopia Institute 


by Linley Dixon, PhD

Farm and Food Policy Analyst at The Cornucopia Institute


Organic food is not solely defined by the inputs that farmers are (and are not) allowed to use. Rather, ‘organic’ is better defined by the natural systems that farmers must foster to create a nutritious product.


These natural systems include nutrient cycling when animals graze and fertilize pasture, attracting predators to control pests, planting a diversity of crops to control disease, and sequestering carbon in the soil to hold water and nutrients.


Why shouldn’t soil-less operations such as hydroponic and containerized systems be considered eligible for organic certification, even if the operations utilize only approved inputs? Because the law says so!


The Organic Foods Production Act (OFPA) requires that certified operations properly manage soil health. In contrast, soil-less operations depend on the addition of approved inputs, in a solution, to produce a crop, rather than primarily relying on the natural processes in the soil to feed the plant.


Organic farming has always been defined by the complex biological systems that farmers are required to nurture, which ultimately produce healthier, more nutrient-dense products with minimal inputs.


For example, organic farmers can simply put a plant into healthy soil that is high in organic matter, water the crop as needed throughout the season, and then allow soil life (i.e., bacteria, fungi, protozoa, and arthropods) to make nutrients available to the crop plant.


Mycorrhizal fungi, for example, are particularly good at unlocking the essential macronutrient phosphorous from the mineral fractions of the soil.


In contrast, to produce a crop hydroponically, growers must continuously feed plants with liquid nutrients.


Alarmingly, for the last several years, the NOP has been allowing the organic certification of hydroponic operations, in direct violation of current law and a reinforcing recommendation made by the NOSB in 2010.


Adding insult to injury, for legitimate U.S. organic farmers, hydroponic operations cannot be certified in the EU, Mexico, or Canada — however, all these countries are exporting hydroponic crops to the U.S., and the USDA is allowing the labeling of their products “organic.”


The majority of organically certified, soil-less hydroponic operations primarily rely on hydrolyzed soybeans to achieve the fertility needed to produce a crop.


This, too, Cornucopia contends, is illegal, since the soybeans used to produce the liquid fertilizer are conventionally produced and, therefore, most likely Roundup®-ready/GMO, also prohibited in organics.


The production of hydrolyzed soy fertilizer involves boiling conventional soybeans in an acid, usually sulfuric acid, for several hours and then neutralizing the substance with a base, usually sodium hydroxide.


How this process is considered “natural,” and therefore not required for review by the NOSB, will also be legally challenged by Cornucopia.


Even if other approved materials are used for fertilization, hydroponic and containerized systems obtain the majority of their nutrients from these liquid fertilizers. The idea that farmers can artificially add everything a plant needs in order to produce the same nutritious crop grown in soil is no doubt a sin of hubris.


For example, all a plant needs to grow is carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen, potassium, phosphorous, calcium, magnesium, sulfur, iron, manganese, boron, zinc, copper, chlorine, cobalt, molybdenum, and nickel.


However, in the last few years scientists have begun to describe how silicon improves plant vigor and, in turn, prevents osteoporosis when consumed in the diet.


What other micronutrients might we be missing from our soil-less nutrient solutions that make our crops more flavorful and nutritious, while benefiting our health?


One teaspoon of soil contains literally billions of organisms, comprised of thousands of separate species. Crop root exudates feed this soil life which, in turn, make micronutrients and minerals available to the crop in complex pathways that we have not begun to describe.


Crops depend on soil microbial diversity much in the way that humans are a “superorganism,” a residence for microbes with whom we have coevolved to perform critical functions for our health, as described by the National Institutes of Health’s Human Microbiome Project.


Esteemed Maine soil-based farmer Eliot Coleman, a mentor to many organic farmers, hangs his hat on nurturing biological diversity in the soil.


Coleman is actively speaking out against the organic certification of containerized systems. He can remember the origins of the organic farming movement in this country.


Coleman notes, “The future of a rational agriculture, able to transform human and planetary health through its appreciation of true soil fertility and the nutritional quality of properly grown plants, may be riding on the outcome of this struggle.”


The 1980 USDA Report and Recommendation on Organic Farming states: “Soil is the Source of Life—Soil quality and balance (that is, soil with proper levels of organic matter, bacterial and biological activity, trace elements, and other nutrients) are essential to the long-term future of agriculture. Human and animal health are directly related to the health of the soil.”


Soil is a central tenet to organic farming. No doubt, hydroponic systems can produce a crop. And producing food without soil, in urban areas, might be a nice option in the winter. But is that crop ‘organic’?



At the end of October, the Northeast organic farmers organized the second “Rally in the Valley,” a gathering of farmers, activists, and even a US Senator expressing resistance to the NOP’s practice of certifying hydroponic and container-growing systems as “organic.”


Vermont certified organic soil-based greenhouse grower Dave Chapman warns, “Between hydroponics and animal welfare, we will have lost organic as a word describing our way of farming.”


Hydroponic and other soil-less production may have a place in a sustainable future, but products should be labeled as “hydroponic,” so consumers can make informed decisions, rather than piggy-backing on the organic label that, by law, clearly states that produce is a result of natural complex processes taking place in healthy soil.


It remains baffling that operations that depend on conventional soy production for fertility are considered ‘organic.’


The NOSB continues to debate whether or not soilless container operations should be considered for organic certification. Keeping the door open to the certification of container operations provides a loophole for production methods that depend on liquid fertilization, rather than soil.