US judge unlikely to ban hydroponic crops from organic label

In a legal battle over what constitutes organic farming, a federal judge signaled Thursday he is unlikely to find a 1990 law forbids labeling hydroponic and other crops not grown in soil as organic. Joined by organic farmers and trade groups, the Center for Food Safety sued the U.S. Food and Drug Administration this past March after the agency denied a petition to make hydroponic crops ineligible for organic certification.

The petitioners argued the Organic Foods Production Act (OFPA) of 1990 requires organic farmers to use techniques, such as crop rotation, that “foster soil fertility.” That requirement is a hurdle they say hydroponic producers can’t overcome because their crops are grown in air or water with nutrient-rich solutions, not soil.

During a virtual hearing Thursday, U.S. District Judge Richard Seeborg said he does not read the law as categorically banning all non-soil-grown crops from being labeled “organic.” “I don’t see anything in the statute that says non-soil production is outside the realm of what can be considered organic under the OFPA,” Seeborg said.

As of January 2019 when the plaintiffs filed their petition, the USDA had certified at least 41 hydroponic operations as organic. The petitioners say those certifications create inconsistent standards that weaken the integrity of the “organic” label.

One of the plaintiffs, Swanton Berry Farms, grows berries in Santa Cruz and San Mateo Counties in California. The organic berry farm says it spent years developing soil-building techniques to produce large enough quantities of quality strawberries to make its business profitable.

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