The Organic Farmers Association (OFA) is raising concern with the US Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) recent statement that “Certification of hydroponic, aquaponic and aeroponic operations is allowed under the USDA organic regulations, and has been since the National Organic Program began,” labeling this action as revisionist history, and an incorrect interpretation of organic law. This statement was released by the USDA’s Agriculture Marketing Service on January 25, 2018.

“The USDA has several times in the past sought guidance from the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) on the advisability of allowing hydroponic production to be certified organic,” said Francis Thicke, OFA policy committee chair and outgoing NOSB member. “This issue is far from settled.”

The association pointed out that in 2010 the NOSB, in a 14 to 1 vote, recommended that hydroponic production not be allowed to be certified organic, stating “systems of crop production that eliminate soil from the system, such as hydroponics or aeroponics cannot be considered as example of acceptable organic farming practices…due to their exclusion of the soil-plant ecology intrinsic to organic farming systems and USDA/NOP regulations governing them.”

The USDA National Organic Program did not follow through on that NOSB recommendation. However, most USDA-accredited certifying agencies have avoided certifying hydroponic operations because of the long-standing requirement—rooted in the Organic Foods Production Act (OFPA)—that organic production must be in the soil.

“There are no federal standards for certifying hydroponic production as organic,” said Jim Riddle, OFA steering committee chair and former NOSB member.

Organic Farmers Association said OFPA—the enabling legislation that created the National Organic Program—indicates that organic production must be soil-based. Quoting the Act, “An organic plan shall contain provisions designed to foster soil fertility, primarily through the management of the organic content of the soil through proper tillage, crop rotation, and manuring.”

Further, Organic Farmers Association asserts that no legal justification accompanied USDA’s recent position of unconditional allowance for organic certification of hydroponic production.

“The notice contained no OFPA or NOP rule citations to justify the novel position being taken by USDA,” said Riddle. “Further, the notice contained no guidance to certifying agencies on how to certify operations that do not comply with most NOP requirements.”

The notice has alarmed pioneer organic farmers, who defined soil as fundamental to organic food production. The Organic Farmers Association, which represents U.S. organic farmers, is also upset by this policy statement, because it provides further evidence that the USDA is ignoring opportunities to maintain or increase consumer confidence in the organic seal.

This trend includes the USDA’s recent withdrawal of the Organic Livestock and Poultry Practices rule, which would strengthen and clarify animal welfare requirements, based on recommendations of the NOSB and extensive input and support from the organic community.

Other recent examples of the USDA’s attempts to undermine organic agriculture include the USDA’s failure to enforce grazing requirements for confinement organic dairy farms, and USDA’s very slow response to stop fraudulent grain imports, which have hurt American organic farmers.

The Organic Farmers Association believes that meaningful, strong, consistent standards must be enforced equally among all sizes and types of organic operations.

“It is a threat to the entire organic community when the USDA is not doing their utmost to enforce the plain language of the Organic Food Production Act and the Final Rule to protect organic integrity,” said Riddle.

To view the recent statement issued by the USDA on hydroponics, visit