OPINION: What will US hydroponics ruling mean for UK organics?

Date Published: 10/11/2017

An unexpected decision to certify hydroponic systems as organic in the United States could have implications for UK organic in a post-Brexit world, says Alan Schofield, Organic Growers Alliance chairman.

The United States Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) advisory body, The National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) held its autumn meeting in Jacksonville, Florida on 31 October – 2 November 2017.

One of the major items on the agenda was the decision on whether the inclusion of hydroponic, aeroponic, aquaponic and container grown systems of horticultural production are compatible with the US’s National Organic Program.

Since at least 2010, a few US certifiers have been allowing these methods of production to carry the USDA organic label, causing uproar among the organic producers who feel that the soil is vital to an organic system and that all production must be based in the living soil.

The EU organic regulation is clear that hydroponic production is outlawed and very strict rules are applied to container growing.

Outraged farmers and growers have been holding protest rallies up and down the US for the last couple of years culminating in a large presence at the Jacksonville meeting.

Unexpected result

On 2 November, after years of debate and passing back and forth for more information, the NOSB voted on the matter. The result was a close call, with eight members in favour of allowing hydroponic production within USDA organic standards and seven against.

The NOSB, as I understand it:

  • Outlawed aeroponic production
  • Allowed aquaculture
  • Allowed hydroponic growing
  • Allowed container growing

Having not seen the detailed minutes of the meeting, I do not know what these votes will mean going forward for organic growing under the NOP; but a total ban on all of these – as was expected by the campaigners – did not happen. Only time will tell the implications of this vote.

Serious implications

But the implications as I see them could be very serious for all organically-grown UK fruit and protected cropping, and could undermine the whole market for these crops if we accept equivalence with the NOP in a post-brexit world.

At present under the 2011 USA/EU trade deal, the NOP at the time was deemed equivalent to the EU regulation with one or two exceptions. If the UK was to go for a quick trade deal with the USA this area of organic standards will have to be revisited, as this vote could mean that the NOP has manifestly changed since 2011.

Organic farming is best defined by the benefits of growing crops on a biologically-active, fertile soil. Crop resistance to pests and diseases is an outcome of farming a soil that fully nourishes the crops.

Organic crops are grown in fertile soil attached to the earth and nourished by the natural biological activities of that soil. Soil fertility should be maintained principally with farm-derived organic matter and mineral particles from ground rock. Green manures and cover crops must be included within broadly based crop rotations to enhance biological diversity.

Stable systems

The greater the variety of plants you grow, the more stable the system. A biologically active soil focuses on correcting the cause of problems by strengthening the plant through optimum growing conditions to prevent pests and diseases taking hold.

In 35 years of organic growing I have seen this happen so many times, and more and more scientific evidence is available today on the mechanisms by which a biologically active fertile soil can create induced resistance in the crops.

The ultimate goal is vigorous, healthy crops endowed with their inherent powers of vitality and resistance.

The present UK organic market has been built on the integrity of all those who grow in the soil and this is what people expect when purchasing organically grown fresh produce.

Organic Growers Alliance