upstarts freight farms inside shipping containers _00002404.jpg
I farm inside a used shipping container
01:50 - Source: CNN

Editor’s Note: Marianne Cufone is an adjunct environmental law professor at Loyola University New Orleans and the executive director of the Recirculating Farms Coalition, a collaborative group of farmers, educators, non-profit organizations and many others committed to eco-efficient and innovative farming. She was also on the task force that submitted recommendations about hydroponic and aquaponic organic certification to the National Organic Standards Board. The opinions expressed here are hers.

Story highlights

Marianne Cufone: Hydroponic and aquaponic farms should continue to be eligible for USDA organic certification

Biological processes of farming matter more than the medium (soil or liquid), she writes

CNN  — 

What makes a product “organic?” In recent debates, it all comes down to dirt – and water.

This week, the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB), an advisory body to the National Organics Program within the US Department of Agriculture, is meeting in St. Louis to discuss whether hydroponic and aquaponic farms should continue to be eligible for USDA organic certification. The board has an important opportunity – and responsibility – to support these innovative and ecologically sustainable farming practices by allowing them to retain the label “organic.”

Marianne Cufone

The word “organic” carries significant meaning for consumers, as it should. For many, the label communicates that a product was grown in a way that is healthier for people and the environment. The technical definition behind the label is a bit more complex. Currently, the NOSB defines organic agriculture as “a production system that responds to site-specific conditions by integrating culture, biological and mechanical practices that foster cycling or resources to promote ecological balance, and conserve biological diversity.” Importantly, the definition does not explicitly include “soil” as a requirement.

For decades, farmers and scientists have developed and employed agricultural practices that use nutrient-rich recirculating water as a sustainable way to grow food. These energy- and water-efficient farming methods – also known as hydroponics and aquaponics – produce plants or plants and fish in contained systems. Their unique design and function minimizes and often eliminates use of antibiotics, genetic modification or chemicals while also tapping into natural processes, promoting faster plant growth in far less space than many farming methods.

For these reasons and more, a number of scientists, researchers, and industry experts support that many such farms are ideal for organic growing, because, among other benefits, they make smart use of resources and thus have less negative impact on the natural environment. Organic certifiers have been allowing some water-based farms that meet existing organic standards to carry the USDA organic label. However, despite broad support and scientific evidence, some soil-based agricultural interests are trying to now ban organic labeling of hydroponic and aquaponic products.

The federal Organic Foods Production Act, which sets up the legal framework for defining organics in the United States and establishes the NOSB, does mention “soil” in a few of its provisions. Opponents argue that these provisions disqualify hydroponic and aquaponic farms from being labeled organic, because they do not contain “soil” in the traditional sense of the word. However, these provisions do not explicitly require soil in organic farming; they say that organic farming practices should either enrich soil or not harm it.

Even if the word “soil” is defined most narrowly as earth (aka dirt), it does not prevent hydroponic and aquaponic farms from qualifying for USDA organic certification, because these farms do not in any way harm “soil.” Hydroponic and aquaponic farms create an active biological environment within each system. Furthermore, the biological processes – those that break down nutrients into usable food for plants – that happen in traditional soil-based agriculture also happen in hydroponic and aquaponic farms. So the mantra “feed the soil, not the plants” is the same in hydroponics and aquaponics as it is in traditional soil-based growing. It is really the biology itself that makes the system organic, not the medium the plants grow in.

Sometimes the tiny living creatures, microbes, in soil need help, and they get “amendments,” which are certain types of materials added to help the biological processes move along. It’s akin to humans taking extra vitamin C to ward off a cold. Hydroponic and aquaponic farms do this too – they might add compost tea, or other materials. These practices are fundamentally the same across all types of farming, whether or not there is dirt present.

Get our free weekly newsletter

  • Sign up for CNN Opinion’s newsletter.
  • Join us on Twitter and Facebook

    So what’s all this fuss over dirt verses water really about? No one should be questioning the science or sustainability of hydroponic and aquaponic farming. However, allowing qualifying hydroponic and aquaponic farms to be certified as USDA Organic increases competition among organic farmers. To be clear, products from hydroponic and aquaponic farms have carried a USDA Organic label for years now. But, as demand for organic food has steadily increased, there is more money at stake, and some dirt-based growers are looking to control their existing market.

    As the NOSB meets this week to discuss the organic label, it should side with science and vote to continue allowing hydroponic and aquaponic farms to be certified as USDA Organic. To repeal such certification would disrupt the US agricultural system at a time when innovation and sustainability are desperately needed and in high demand. The NOSB should not miss the opportunity to encourage all forms of organic farming, regardless of whether or not they include dirt.