Tawnya’s Experience With The National Organic Standards Board

By Tawnya Sawyer

The National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) had their Spring 2017 meeting in April at the Denver Sheraton Conference Center (coincidently the same venue as the 2012 Aquaponic Association conference.) The panel of 16 board members had a lengthy agenda reviewing a variety of substances, different livestock management practices and a host of other important topics. Of major interest to our industry was the discussion related to the future of organic certification for hydroponics/aeroponics/aquaponics and greenhouse container growing.

The meeting ended with an agreement that the discussion would be officially continued to the Fall 2017 Meeting scheduled for November in Florida.

About a hundred people were in attendance to hear the various discussions. Public comments were allowed on the second day of the meeting in three minute pre-scheduled increments. Sascha Bollag from the Recirculating Farms Collation and Michael Hasey from The Farming Fish in Oregon (a certified aquaponic and soil farm) were able to speak and provide valuable insights as to the reasons that aquaponics and other soil-less growing techniques should maintain organic certification.

During the discussion portion of the meeting on day three, the board members expressed confusion, and agreed they didn’t have enough information to make a final decision. They were having a difficult time understanding many of the definitions, growing principles, sustainability and impact that including or denying the certification would create.  A few members expressed that they had never seen any type of greenhouse production using these growing techniques, and that they felt it would be valuable to visit an indoor production facility to better understand soil-less growing methods. They also discussed that the techniques are different enough that trying to put them into the same “category” may prove too difficult, as was the suggestion that an alternate labeling method be considered.

Luckily, when the meeting adjourned, I was able to invite the board to visit Flourish Farms, our 3,000 sq ft aquaponic farm located at the GrowHaus in a Northwest Denver food desert community. I felt very fortunate to have the opportunity to speak openly for almost 2 hours helping the board members better understand aquaponics and hydroponics since both growing methods are demonstrated at the GrowHaus.

Overall, there was recognition that trying to combine these methods into one group, and trying to apply soil guidelines may be creating more challenges than can easily be overcome. These are different growing methods and some should be certified and some clearly should not (such as synthetic hydroponics). It was very rewarding to be able to exchange ideas and help inform the discussion. I encourage other farmers to reach out to the board and offer opportunities to visit your farms as this can have a positive impact on the future designation of organic aquaponic certification.


In 2015 an NOSB Task Force was created to review hydroponics/aeroponics/aquaponics and greenhouse container production. Some of the challenges identified are related to building soil fertility, liquid fertilizers, raw manure, use of plastics, and sustainability if power were to fail. Many of these considerations have been addressed in the document Aquaponic Systems Utilize the Soil Food Web to Grow Healthy Crops, which has been presented to the NOSB for their review. Additional positions by the Recirculating Farms Coalition and the Aquaponics Association were also printed and submitted for the board’s review.

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.

Official Statement on the Ongoing NOSB (National Organic Standards Board) Aquaponic Eligibility Debate

The Aquaponics Association’s official statement on the ongoing NOSB (National Organic Standards Board) Aquaponic eligibility debate. Prepared by:

Brian Filipowich

Aquaponics Association, Directer of Public Policy, February 2017


The Aquaponics Association Urges the National Organic Standards Board to Maintain the Organic Eligibility of Aquaponic Produce

The Aquaponics Association very strongly urges the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) to maintain the ability of crops grown in aquaponic systems to carry the organic seal. The 15-member NOSB met in St. Louis last November and considered a proposal to revoke the organic eligibility of crops grown in water-based systems like aquaponic, hydroponic, and perhaps even soil-based “container-grown” systems. The NOSB noted that in 2016 there are 52 certified organic hydroponic/aquaponic operations. The NOSB plans to vote again in April, at the Spring 2017 meeting in Denver.


The Aquaponics Association firmly believes that we can deliver what consumers expect when they see the organic label:         

1)  No synthetic pesticides, fertilizers, or antibiotics

2)  Sustainable production

3)  Healthy, active microbiology


The NOSB eventually found that more work will be needed before making a final decision on this matter, and they sent it back for more work in the Crops Sub-committee. They did, however, pass a non-binding resolution stating their belief that crops with “entirely water-based substrates” should not be eligible. And, in their statements, several members of the NOSB expressed a keen interest in revoking aquaponic organic eligibility. Even if the NOSB does eventually make a final decision, it would still take years for the National Organic Program (NOP) to write and implement rules. (In fact, the NOP did not act on the NOSB’s 2010 recommendation to ban hydroponics). So, for the foreseeable future, aquaponics remains organic eligible. We will see movement and more clarity on this issue at the next NOSB meeting in April 2017.

Dr. Sarah Taber, Aquaponics Association Director of Food Safety, delivered a statement illustrating the depth of empirical peer-reviewed research showing that the roots of aquaponic plants contain the same quantity and diversity of root bacteria and fungi as soil-grown plants. This statement spoke to a key consideration of organic eligibility: whether plant nutrients are delivered via biological processes or inert mineral solutions.

Brian Filipowich, Aquaponics Association Director of Public Policy, made a statement about consumers’ organic expectations, the sustainability of aquaponics, and the economic effect of the organic seal on aquaponic growers. He noted that the price premium of organic crops is critical to incentivizing new entrants into sustainable growing. (See the full statement for the further discussion of efficiency and economics.)

Aquaponic systems are their own ecosystem of fish, plants, and bacteria that thrive in a symbiotic environment. Because the systems are closed-loop, only the minimum necessary inputs are added (fish food) and with no environmentally-damaging runoff. Aquaponics uses over 90% less water than soil- grown crops. We can also offer a healthy, efficient, and delicious source of animal protein: fish such as Tilapia, Blue Gill, and Perch. And regarding organic: we can’t use antibiotics or chemical pesticides in our systems because it would kill our bacteria and our ecosystems.

Because aquaponics is not soil-based, it can provide fresh local produce in urban or drought-stricken areas. If we are going to meet the demand for affordable organic produce in the decades to come, we will need to employ efficient methods like aquaponics. And, controlled environment production offers full-year jobs, rather than seasonal.

The Aquaponics Association has formed the Aquaponic and Hydroponic Organic Coalition to advocate on this front. The Coalition is a group of over 50 aquaponic and hydroponic growers and stakeholders.                   

Click Here, to Join the Aquaponic and Hydropoponic Coalition.

The Coalition will continue to fight for organic eligibility until the NOP resolves the issue.


Join our cause to ensure the future of aquaponics is protected!