Law Street Media

Organic Farms and Orgs. Claim Hydroponics Should Not Be Allowed Organic Certification

A hydroponics farm for lettuce.

Hydroponics plantation farm, lettuce

The Center for Food Safety, along with advocates and organic farmers, argued in a motion for summary judgment filed on Thursday that the Northern District of California should rule that the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) is illegally allowing the “organic” label to be placed on foods that do not deserve it, namely, foods grown using hydroponic systems.

Hydroponic systems use nutrient-filled water systems instead of soil. The plaintiffs claimed that the Organic Foods Production Act (OFPA) should exclude the organic certification from hydroponic systems; they said allowing the agricultural systems “violates the plain language of OFPA’s purpose, its statutory and regulatory provisions, and is arbitrary and capricious, and contrary to law.” The plaintiffs argued that hydroponic farming does not recognize the “core principle of organic farming,” which is to “sustain and enhance the health of the soil.”

The lawsuit was initially filed in March against the USDA, its secretary Sonny Perdue, and its administrators Bruce Summers and Jennifer Tucker. The defendants are represented by the Department of Justice.

The complaint said the “USDA also erroneously concluded that hydroponic operations’ generalized environmental benefits alone qualify them for organic certification, even though the OFPA regulations call for all producers to conserve natural resources and biodiversity on site.” The plaintiffs, which include certified organic farms and certifiers, claimed that their interests are harmed by the USDA’s action to give the organic certification to farms using hydroponic operations.

The motion explained that the USDA created a task force that recommended that the department’s 2012 ruling that hydroponics operations can receive an organic certification should be altered to allow only organic bioponics. The USDA, however, took no action despite requests and petitions from the plaintiffs and the National Organic Standards Board.

The USDA, in its denial of the petition, argued that all organic systems, including hydroponic operations, needed to comply with USDA regulations and cited environmental benefits of hydroponic operations. The motion stated, “in the Petition Denial, USDA insisted that hydroponic operations may be certified organic ‘if done in compliance with OFPA and the USDA organic regulations’ but entirely failed to explain how or what measures certifiers must apply to ensure compliance.”

The plaintiffs alleged that the USDA “created an unlawful loophole” in organic crops and have eroded organic standards. They called the actions of the USDA a “slippery slope,” which could lead to inconsistency in organic standards.

Plaintiffs in the case include the Center for Food Safety; Swanton Berry Farms, Inc; Full Belly Farm, Inc.; Durst Organic Growers, Inc.; Terra Firma Farms, Inc.; Jacobs Farm Del Cabo, Inc.; Long Wind Farm, Inc.; OncCert, Inc.; and Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association. They are represented by Sylvia Shih-Yau Wu and Meredith Stevenson, lawyers with the Center for Food Safety. 

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