On March 19, Judge Richard Seeborg of the U.S. District Court in San Francisco ruled that the USDA may continue to allow Organic Certification of “soil-less” growing methods such as aquaponics and hydroponics.
A lawsuit had challenged the USDA to exclude hydroponic and aquaponic production from Organic eligibility; add soil-less systems to the National Organic Program’s prohibited list; and revoke all existing organic certifications already issued to hydroponic and aquaponic operations.
The Organic Food Production Act [the OFPA] sets the standards the USDA must follow in implementing the Organic program. Much of the law stresses the importance of “soil fertility” in the Organic standards. But the law was passed in 1990, before soil-less growing was widespread. The judge noted that, ““none of the provisions you point me to reflect some notion that [the OFPA] is intended to exclude other forms of production.”
If the lawsuit was successful, aquaponic farms would have lost the Organic certification that is vital to their commercial success. In many cases, the extra money consumers are willing to pay for USDA Organic-certified produce is a critical incentive to draw and keep more sustainable soil-less growers and funders in the market.
Aquaponics produce aligns with what consumers expect when they purchase Organic: production that: 1) is free from harmful pesticides; 2) is environmentally sustainable; and 3) relies on natural ecosystems for plant growth.
The Aquaponics Association published an Organic Sign-On Letter with over 200 signatures arguing that aquaponics must remain eligible for organic certification. The Association also signed onto an Amicus Brief to the Court, led by the Coalition for Sustainable Organics.