Spring 2017 Update

NOSB Defers Decision on Organic Aquaponics to Fall 2017

By Jack Symington
Spring 2017

After three days of discussion in April, the National Organic Standards Board deferred deciding on the Organic eligibility of bioponic farming methods, including aquaponics. The NOSB will continue studying the issue and revisit it at the Fall 2017 meeting.

For the time being, aquaponic production is still eligible for Organic certification.

The primary reason for the deferral was the lack of consensus on both the definitions of various bioponic methods and the interpretation of “Organic” by consumers and farmers alike.

More Information

During the proceedings, Harriet Behar, NOSB member and former Organic certifier, stated that “[o]rganic is not input substitution. It is a whole system… a type of agriculture that offers hope for fixing the problems.” This attitude aligned with those of the consumer and retailer representatives on the board, who believe the current market interpretations of “Organic” center on ecological sustainability and input reduction. But even these interpretations would affect the eligibility of different bioponic methods, befitting aquaponics more than hydroponics, as the latter requires greater human inputs.

Proponents of restricting bioponic methods from Organic certification don’t believe the market should influence the definition. Instead, soil cultivation should remain the focus. Additionally, there was agreement on prioritizing the reduction of inputs, but divergence on the degree to which the growing media be biologically active.

There was no disagreement that aquaponics demonstrates an ecologically complete system requiring little human input, but there was discussion of the need for a different label than Organic based on the substrate choice.

Advocates of this idea cited the importance of an exclusive labelling to protect and encourage local farmers who can adhere to the strict definition of Organic without significant initial capital outlays. Dissidents worried that more labels would only confuse consumers and retailers. Joelle Mosso, NOSB member, “want[s] organic to be the form of agriculture, not a subset of agriculture,” and expressed wariness that a separation could end with two labels commercially weaker than one.

Before label and certification discussions resume, the board asks for more clear definitions of the three different bioponic systems (aqua, hydro, and aero). Specific questions for which the board wanted clarification involved the use of containers, biologically active grow media, and human inputs in each system’s production standard. While individual container systems lacking a solid substrate and requiring copious human inputs may struggle to retain Organic certification, the ecological complexity and sustainability of aquaponic systems provide both farmers and consumers a product credibly within the Organic framework.

Aquaponic GAP Standards

The Aquaponics Association has developed a set of provisional Good Agricultural Practices (GAPs) for aquaponics, a first step in enabling future food safety audits for large aquaponics operations. As these GAPs may run contrary to design of some current home gardens and artisinal farms, recall that GAPs are not mandatory for aquaponic systems that do not need to pass food safety audits.

Click to Review Provisional GAP Standards for Aquaponics

FDA & USDA Resources for GAP Practices

Resources linked here for your convenience. These are general guidelines, while not specific to aquaponics provide a starting point for food safety.

Organic Issue

Join the Aquaponic and Hydroponic Organic Coalition 

The National Organic Standards Board will vote this November to formally recommend banning organic aquaponics and hydroponics, help us fight back!

CLICK HERE to join the effort

CLICK HERE to view the Coalition’s comment letter to the NOSB

The Aquaponics Association has established the Aquaponic and Hydroponic Organic Coalition. The mission of the Coalition is to retain our industries’ organic eligibility and, if necessary, work to develop specific aquaponic and hydroponic organic standards.

Membership in the Coalition is free and open to any and all businesses, organizations, institutions, or plain old ordinary citizens who believe that aquaponics and hydroponics should be eligible for USDA organic certification.

Why Are We Forming the Aquaponic and Hydroponic Organic Coalition?

We need to start growing with more aquaponics and hydroponics (AP/HP) to be able to feed our growing population without causing irreparable harm to our environment and our health. But in order to increase our volume, AP/HP have to be commercially viable. The organic label allows growers to earn a premium for their produce and can be the difference between a profitable farm or bankruptcy. If practiced appropriately, AP/HP embody the spirit of organic that consumers expect: they are highly sustainable and do not require antibiotics or synthetic pesticides or fertilizers. And in a measure critical to organic classification – the quantity and diversity of root microbes- AP/HP are comparable to the flora in compost.

Urban agriculture is often forced to be soilless because of space and/or contaminated soil. Organic certification allows a premium price, which can be critical for urban operations’ survival because of high land prices. In other words: a “soil-only” organic rule would devastate urban agriculture, an important source of urban employment and upward mobility.

Sustainable Advantages of Aquaponics and Hydroponics Over Soil Culture

AP/HP use 90% less water than soil crops! In the U.S., agriculture accounts for approximately EIGHTY PERCENT of our fresh water usage.  In 2015 NASA documented the shocking depletion of global groundwater resources, finding that 21 of the worlds’ 37 largest aquifers are experiencing unsustainable depletion.

AP/HP are closed-loop systems, meaning there is no nutrient or fertilizer runoff. Runoff from soil agriculture disrupts the natural ecosystem and causes massive aquatic “dead zones”, like in the Chesapeake Bay or the Gulf of Mexico.

AP/HP can grow food more densely and produce more food for a given area than soil-based agriculture. A “soil-only” organic philosophy requires the destruction of more natural space to feed our growing population.

What Will the Aquaponic and Hydroponic Organic Coalition Do?

Coalition members will receive updates from the Aquaponics Association when events occur regarding AP/HP grower’s organic eligibility.

During critical moments of USDA deliberation, the Aquaponics Association will ask Coalition Members to take voluntary action. Examples of such actions include:

  • signing group advocacy letters to the USDA or Congress;
  • individually contacting the USDA or your representatives in Congress;
  • providing the Coalition with information about your operations and how changes to AP/HP organic eligibility would affect you;
  • seeking other like-minded business or organizations to join our Coalition; or
  • attending regional meetings, such as the National Organic Standards Board’s November 16 meeting in St. Louis, MO.

How is the Aquaponic and Hydroponic Organic Coalition Organized?

The Coalition is managed by the Aquaponics Association. The Association has an Organics Committee that advises it on matters related to AP/HP organic eligibility. If you have particular expertise in AP/HP organic eligibility and believe you could be helpful to the operation of the Coalition, please email community@aquaponicsassociation.org with a brief note about yourself and your background — we can use all the help we can get!

Current State of Organic Rules
In 2010, the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) recommended prohibiting “hydroponic and aeroponic” systems from organic certification due to their “exclusion of soil-plant ecology intrinsic to organic farming systems”. Such a rule would apply to aquaponics as well. However, the data shows beneficial microbes are abundant on the roots of hydroponic and aquaponic plants. “Sterile hydroponics” is an urban legend—and should never be the basis for excluding it from organics.

Despite the NOSB’s recommendation, the USDA’s National Organics Program (NOP) did not take action and aquaponics and hydroponics have still been organic-eligible. (The NOSB is an advisory body to the NOP)

The NOP appointed a Hydroponic and Aquaponic Task Force. The Task Force just issued a report, which can be found here. And the NOSB in September, 2016 officially released a new recommendation, on which they will vote in November:

“…the NOSB supports the decisions by previous boards by recommending that hydroponics, aeroponics, bioponics or aquaponics are not consistent with organic production due to their exclusion of the soil-plant ecology intrinsic to organic farming systems.” – NOSB Proposals and Discussion Documents in preparation for the November 2016 meeting

The Aquaponics Association, through the guidance of its Organics Committee, plans to provide a comment to the NOSB proposal and mount an advocacy campaign to ensure that AP/HP production retains its eligibility for organic certification.

If you have any questions or comments on this issue, please email community@aquaponicsassociation.org.

CLICK HERE TO SIGN UP