A federal civil action brought by soil-using organic growers does not name any of the hydroponic growers they want to prevent from using USDA’s organic label.

But that does not mean hydroponic growers are going to remain silent as the litigation proceeds against Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue and other USDA officials.

The lawsuit was filed on March 2 against USDA by the Center for Food Safety and several prominent organic growers. Hydroponic growers, represented by the Coalition for Sustainable Organics (CSO) said the CFS roll-out was misleading.

Current policy as determined by Secretary Perdue permits hydroponic growers to use the official USDA organic seal. Perdue gets advice on such issues from the National Organic Standards Board, an appointed body that meets twice a year.

Lee Frankel, the executive director of the CSO, said the press release and legal complaint “contains incorrect information regarding the final 2017 NOSB vote on whether to recommend making hydroponics, containers, and aquaponic systems as prohibited practices.”

Frankel said the NOSB voted in the majority to reject that proposal. “It is false to state that USDA ignored the NOSB proposal when in fact the NOSB vote indicated that the majority of NOSB supported the existing USDA policy,” he added.

The CFS-led Plaintiffs in the lawsuit charge that current policy permitting hydroponics to use the USDA certified organic seal violates the Organic Foods Production Act (OFPA). That’s because standards for implementing the act encourage organic growers to “foster soil health.”

Frankel says the CSO “is saddened by the latest attempts by the Center for Food Safety and their allies to limit fair competition and organic supplies in the market through legal action.”

“It is disappointing to see groups target pioneering organic farmers that use the most appropriate organic growing methods adapted to their site-specific conditions on their farms to meet the needs of consumers,” Frankel said.

Hydroponics has been called the “indoor agriculture evolution” by USDA, with the potential to offer a food safety advantage for growing lettuce and other leafy greens. Hydroponics grows plants in water using specific mineral nutrient solutions, not soils.

Frankel says his members are committed to the integrity of organic standards and the organic label. He says the groups behind the lawsuit failed to convince NOSB members that hydroponic and container production should be prohibited and there was significant industry debate by the organic community.

Frankel says the CFS “is seeking to eliminate public input to achieve their goals of restricting competition to drive up the price of organics for organic consumers to allow favored producers to increase their profit margins.”

While Perdue’s most recent decision favoring hydroponics occurred on June 6, 2019, the USDA policy is not new. “Growers using containers adhere to the USDA organic standards under the National Organic Program (NOP) and have been allowed to grow certified organic produce since the initiation of the nOP more than 25 years ago,” Frankel added.

Federal Magistrate Judge Laurel Beeler with U.S. District Court for Northern California is hearing the case.

Sylvia Wu, senior attorney for CFS, says “federal organic law unequivocally  requires organic production to promote soil fertility.”  And CFS Executive Director says “healthy soil is the foundation of organic farming.”

As for the soil-using organic growers who are Plaintiffs in the lawsuit, price competition from hydroponic growers is causing economic damages, according to their complaint.

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