A federal judge in California last March found in favor of the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture’s ruling that hydroponics can be labeled as USDA Organic foods. The Center for Food Safety and several traditional organic growers were on the losing side of that decision and they’ve continued the case with an appeal to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.

“Hydroponics” refers to methods of growing crops using water-based nutrient solutions without any soil.

The original case was brought against then-Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue early in 2020 and continued against  Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack when he took over in 2021. Federal Judge Richard Seeborg dismissed the litigation after a one-year ride in the U.S. District Court for Northern California.

At the Ninth Circuit, the window is now open for amicus briefs, and a large segment of the agriculture industry has weighed in to support the district court ruling that USDA’s “ongoing certification of hydroponic systems that comply with all applicable regulations is firmly planted in  OFPA (Organic Foods Production Act.)”

Signing on to the amicus brief as the Coalition for Sustainable Organics (CSO) are the Aquaponics Associations, Mulch & Soil  Council, Western Growers Association, International Fresh Produce Association, and The Scotts Company. The brief supports the certification as organic growers for those using a greenhouse, container, or hydroponic system.

The Center for Food Safety also represents a broad coalition of organic farmers, certifiers, and organic nonprofits. In filing the appeal, CFS claimed that ” hydroponic operations cannot comply with federal organic standards because hydroponic crop producers do not work to build soil health, a mandatory requirement of the organic label.”

“USDA is ignoring the core, soil-based principles of organic farming and relying on an exemption for hydroponic producers found nowhere in the federal organic standard,” said Meredith Stevenson, CFS attorney, and counsel for appellants. “The district court holding rubberstamped USDA’s decision to continue unfairly undercutting the livelihoods of organic farmers who devote extensive time and resources to building healthy soils.”

The amicus brief explains how growers present organic system plans for an audit by third parties who are USDA-accredited to make sure organic requirements are met. Organic hydroponic growers make long-term investments in systems with growing consumer demand for organic hydroponic products, the brief says.

“We look forward to the organic industry coming together at the conclusion of the appeal to strengthen the organic community and work on increasing accessibility to organics and improving the resiliency of fresh organic supplies, rather than continuing these divisive legal actions to limit competition,” said Lee Frankel, CSO’s executive director

The Center for Food Safety’s dispute with USDA over whether hydroponic agriculture should be certified as organic pre-dates the court action. A CFS petition to USDA in 2019 said hydroponic production violated the Organic Food Production Act. The USDA denied the CFS petition, saying while controversial,  hydroponic systems  were “consistently allowed ”

In denying the petition, the USDA also said there is no requirement that all organic production “occurs in a soil-based environment.”

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