Hacking USDA organic for your vertical farm

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The National Organic Standards Board keeps making the same, big mistake. They don’t want to give vertical farming a place in organic agriculture. This piece examines their arguments and how enterprising vertical farmers may be able to get around them.

how to get usda organic certification for vertical farms

The National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) is the expert panel that guides the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Organic Program (NOP) and they’re missing a fundamental truth.

Vertical farming fulfills the goals of organic agriculture better than many of the farms that are already certified organic. Organic foods are the fastest growing sector of the food industry, growing from $28.4B in 2012 to $35B in 2013, hitting the 2014 estimate a whole year earlier. With such a huge incentive, industrial farming and unsustainable agriculture have taken root in organic, just as they have in traditional farming.

Yet, organic is still clearly the better choice. One of the most important differences between organic agriculture and conventional agriculture is the origin of off-farm inputs like pesticides and fertilizers. Organic agriculture generally does not permit synthetic chemicals, only those that are naturally occurring.  According to NPR, the top reasons people prefer organics are to support local farmers (36% of survey respondents) and concerns about toxins from conventional farming (34%).  However, pesticides in organic are still pesticides, but pesticides in vertical farming don’t have to exist.

The National Organic Program is a good one.  It is important to protect the integrity of the food we eat in as many ways as possible, but the NOSB’s current stance on hydroponic farming threatens to do just the opposite by refusing to recognize vertical farming’s and hydroponic growing’s holistic sustainability.

NOSB defined organic in 1995 and there is no evidence to indicate that they even considered the concept of growing organic crops without soil while coming up with the original definition. The NOSB originally defined organic agriculture as “an ecological production management system that promotes and enhances biodiversity, biological cycles, and soil biological activity. It is based on minimal use of off-farm inputs and on management practices that restore, maintain, and enhance ecological harmony.”

architectual mock up

Based off of these criteria and other, more specific regulations, the NOSB’s argument hinges on the philosophy that something cannot be organic if there isn’t soil involved; it’s just not natural.  The NOSB’s Crops Subcommittee noted “the soil-plant ecology intrinsic to organic farming systems” at the Spring session in 2009.  Many in the vertical farming industry are worried that because vertical farming often uses hydroponic or aeroponic techniques, it won’t be able to get certification.

But how can organic, an idea that rejects damaging fertilizers and pesticides, offhandedly reject hydroponics that uses none of them based on a definition that didn’t even consider it a possibility? The absurdity of the NOSB’s position is further highlighted by 2010 comments (when the recommendation was first introduced) by the Midwest Organic Services Association, Inc. (MOSA), an organic certification company, that I included below:

“These standards, with their definitions of “hydroponics” and “aeroponics” and the requirements for organic matter as a substrate and the presence of soil biology make clear the reasoning for these methods not being allowed in organic production.  We have seen hydroponic operations that use organic matter and exhibit a natural and diverse soil ecology. Would such operations be prohibited?”

What MOSA is trying to get at is this: just like some soil-based agricultural operations are good and some are bad, hydroponic operations can also be good and bad.  There are tons of examples of organic hydroponic products. Here’s one that’s now finishing an Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign, and of course the farm featured on this site is a prime example.

Rejecting healthy, soilless operations from the organic certification may actually even weaken organic. In the face of that rejection, the logical step for a hydroponic operation would be to label their products as “pesticide free” and “synthetic free;” both labels that many organic operations can’t actually use. Conventional farming and big agribusiness will continue to assert that organic production is just as toxic as conventional with the added bonus of a higher price tag.  With those competing narratives, it will be easy for people to pick hydroponically grown produce.

Thanks to Sky Vegetables for this shot!

Thanks to Sky Vegetables for this shot!

That scenario is a long ways off, and a lot of consumer trends would have to fall exactly into place, but isn’t it better to avoid it all together?  Because of the way organic certification is outsourced and because the NOP hasn’t actually legislated the NOSB’s recommendations, it is actually possible to have an organic soilless farm. That means the opportunity exists for many vertical farms.

There are three main ways a vertical farm may achieve organic certification:

  • Utilizing aquaponics: aquaponics has a built in, natural way of recycling nutrients that does not necessitate off-farm inputs. Though there are further specific guidelines, aquaponics fits the NOSB’s vision better than strict hydroponics. However, farms like this one are showing that even soil can be introduced into hydroponics with 100% of the production inputs being composted for future reuse.
  • Overseas certification: laws in countries like Mexico and Canada allow hydroponic crops to be certified as organic and sold elsewhere.  As a result of trade agreements between various countries, those crops can be sold, with the USDA organic equivalence, without going through the same certification process.
  • Accredited certifying agents (ACAs): Because the NOP has not issued any binding guidance or regulations, some ACAs have certified various hydroponic systems. ACA’s that Cornucopia has identified that have certified these systems are: CCOF, OTCO, Quality Assurance International (QAI), Indiana Certified Organic, Midwest Organic Services Association (MOSA), and Organic Certifiers, Inc.

USDA’s organic certification is confusing and I’m happy to answer any specific questions you might have about it. If you’ve had any success with these methods or you think they’ll be useful to you in the future, feel free to let me know in the comments!

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6 thoughts on “Hacking USDA organic for your vertical farm

  1. Pingback: WORLD ORGANIC NEWS | Hacking USDA organic for your vertical farm | The Urban Vertical Project

  2. the organic standards in Canada, section 7.5.1 states ‘The operator shall totally abstain from using hydroponics and aeroponics.’

  3. Pingback: Fresh Water Greens; the success story | The Urban Vertical Project

  4. Pingback: Simple Secrets To Start A Vertical Farm | The Urban Vertical Project

  5. Pingback: Rich hipsters in urban farming and terminator crops as pest control in vertical farms – The Urban Vertical Project

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