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Hydroponic crops qualify for organic certification, appellate court rules

The court ruling allowing the USDA to grant organic certification to hydroponic crops will stand, the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled on Thursday.

This latest decision is potentially the final chapter of the battle about whether organic crops must be planted in soil. The Center for Food Safety and other plaintiffs filed a lawsuit in 2020 following the USDA’s inaction on a petition urging the department to exclude hydroponically grown produce from organic certification.

The plaintiffs have argued for years that the 1990 Organic Foods Production Act, which established the organic program, mandates that its crops must “foster soil fertility.” Since hydroponic farming is done without soil, they have said it cannot meet the standards of the federal law and therefore crops grown that way should not be allowed to gain certification.

Last March, a federal judge upheld the USDA’s decision to allow hydroponic crops to be certified organic and dismissed the lawsuit. The judge ruled the USDA reasonably interpreted the law, which has no inherent prohibition for crops grown without soil. The plaintiffs appealed to the higher court.

The three-judge appellate panel agreed the text of the law does not expressly ban hydroponic crops from receiving organic certification. The USDA has a well-reasoned argument as to why hydroponic crops receive the certification, the opinion reads, so the court let the ruling stand.

The issue of whether hydroponic crops can be organic has been contentious since the organic program started. The National Organic Standards Board, which makes policy recommendations to the USDA, voted 8-to-7 against a ban on hydroponic certification in late 2017. The USDA followed those recommendations with new policy clarifications about hydroponic organic certification in early 2018.

Groups and individual farmers continued the fight with the petition and court case.

In an email, the Center for Food Safety said, “We are deeply disappointed by the Court’s decision, and are currently reviewing the decision and analyzing potential next steps.”

In the years since this battle began, several large indoor farming operations have grown with an eye on disrupting the produce industry.

Indoor farming companies Upward Farms and Soli Organics both have received USDA Organic Certification for their crops, but neither of them uses hydroponics. Many companies in this space that do hydroponic growth are not currently organic certified, but say on their websites that their practices are more stringent than organic.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to include a comment from the Center for Food Safety. 

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