The legal battle over whether hydroponic farms can qualify for the certified organic label appears over for now: The soil-less growers will continue to qualify for the coveted—and profitable—designation, thanks to a new federal court ruling late last week.
US District Judge Richard Seeborg on Friday ruled against a coalition, led by an advocacy group called the Center for Food Safety, that had asked the court to bar hydroponic farms from being certified organic by the US Department of Agriculture. The ruling, however, did not try to answer the question of whether such growers should be considered organic but only whether the USDA is within its rights to deem them so.
The two sides reacted to the news as one would expect. The Coalition for Sustainable Organics, which represents hydroponic growers, issued a statement declaring itself “ecstatic.” Meanwhile, plaintiffs such as Long Wind Farm’s Dave Chapman offered one of their own calling the decision “a sad note in the song of our democracy.”
The plaintiffs’ case centered on a provision in the Organic Foods Protection Act of 1990 that requires organic farmers to “foster soil fertility,” something hydroponic growers pretty much by definition don’t do. But the USDA has long maintained that specific requirement applies only to farmers who. use soil—not those who don’t—and the agency has certified dozens of soil-less hydroponic operations as organic over the years. The Center for Food Safety and a group of traditional organic farmers formally asked the USDA to stop the practice back in 2019 and, when the agency rejected that petition, the Center filed its lawsuit in March of last year.
The clash between old-school organic growers and new-school hydroponic farmers is larger than a single lawsuit, as Dan Nosowitz has explained in Modern Farmer. The former generally see their farms as a single ecosystem of which soil is central, while the latter are more concerned with the end product. Put another way, traditional organic farmers define “organic” mostly by what it is (crop rotation, natural pest control, etc.) while hydroponic farmers define it solely by what it isn’t (synthetic fertilizers, chemical pesticides, etc.). The battle lines, however, can get a little blurry given that many farmers on both sides share the same goal of offering an alternative to chemical-intensive conventional agriculture.
The debate is about more than just semantics, of course—it’s also about cash. While organic farming remains only a small slice of American agriculture, it’s still big business. According to the latest federal data, the organic industry in the United States totaled nearly $10 billion in sales in 2019, up nearly a third since 2016. Increasingly, large food corporations, such as Driscoll’s, are getting in the hydroponic game as well.
For a company looking to scale up organic production quickly, hydroponic offers some clear advantages under the USDA status quo. For starters, a farmer that wants to convert a conventional farm into an organic one has to let the soil recover for three chemical-free years, while hydroponic growers face no such waiting period. That can put traditional soil-based farmers at a disadvantage, and they contend it amounts to a double standard.
Last week’s ruling won’t settle the matter once and for all. In a statement, the Center for Food Safety suggested it’s currently evaluating its remaining legal options, while its fellow plaintiffs vowed to fight on outside of court. “[T]he organic movement will continue with or without the USDA, as the National Organic Program moves further and further away from the people it was meant to serve and protect,” said Long Wind’s Chapman, who founded the Real Organic Project, which offers its own add-on certification to soil-based farms in the USDA program. “When laws operate without the consent of the governed, we all lose. That is why the Real Organic movement exists.”