An organic industry watchdog contends the USDA has quietly allowed a flood of hydroponically-produced fruits and vegetables, largely imported, to be illegally labeled and sold as “organic.” This produce is generally grown under artificial lighting, indoors, and on an industrial scale. The Wisconsin-based Cornucopia Institute announced they had filed a formal legal complaint(PDF) against some of the largest agribusinesses involved in the practice and their organic certifying agents.
The controversy will come to a head in mid-November, when the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) is expected to vote on whether or not hydroponic operations (growing without soil) should be legalized for organic certification at their semiannual meeting in St. Louis. This vote comes six years after the NOSB initially reaffirmed that hydroponics and aquaponics should be prohibited under the organic label.
Disregarding that prohibition, the USDA has allowed over 100 foreign and domestic soil-less operations to become certified organic, creating unfair competition for soil-based U.S. growers. The U.S. is an outlier in international commerce as most countries prohibit the organic certification of soil-less hydroponic produce, including the 28 countries of the European Union (EU), Mexico, Japan, and Canada.
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“Astute consumers have turned to organics to procure fruits and vegetables for their family knowing that certified farmers do a better job of stewarding the land by nurturing the complex biological ecosystem in the soil, which creates nutrient-dense, superior food,” said Mark Kastel, senior farm policy analyst at The Cornucopia Institute. “Hydroponic and container systems rely on liquid fertilizers developed from conventional crops or waste products. Suggesting that they should qualify for organic labeling is a specious argument.”
The Cornucopia complaint specifically targets two of the giants in U.S. hydroponic production, the organic berry behemoth, Driscoll’s, and a major tomato, cucumber, and bell pepper producer, Wholesum Harvest.