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Fall 2016 NOSB Meeting Recap: Carrageenan, Excluded Methods, Hydroponics, Facebook Live Interviews

Last week, I was in St. Louis to attend the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) meeting, and I’d say we walked away with one big win, one big loss, and one win that shouldn’t really be considered a win.

For those who are unfamiliar with the NOSB, it is a 15-person board that is supposed to represent various interests of the organic industry, with each member appointed by the USDA secretary for a 5-year term. More than anything, the NOSB makes recommendations to the USDA regarding rules and regulations for all aspects of organic, including allowed and prohibited substances. The NOSB, which meets twice per year, is arguably the most important committee when it comes to deciding the fate and future of organic.

At this most recent meeting, there were many items up for discussion and vote, but the following three were the highest profile and most important. Here is a rundown on each.


This seaweed-derived additive commonly used as a thickener or stabilizer has been a source of a lot of controversy in organic over the last few years. Big industry players have been fighting to keep it in — maintaining that it is safe — while consumers have been clamoring for it to be removed. Carrageenan has been linked to gastrointestinal inflammation and higher rates of intestinal lesions, ulcerations, and even malignant tumors.

The NOSB voted to remove carrageenan, and it will no longer be allowed in certified organic products beginning in 2018.

My Take: This is a big win and kudos goes out to The Cornucopia Institute who has been aggressively lobbying against carrageenan for the last six years.


GMOs are prohibited in organic, and genetic modification is an excluded method. With the advent of new technologies since the original organic law was drafted, such as CRISPR-Cas9, mutagenesis and synthetic biology, these technologies needed to be added to the excluded methods list, along with principles and criteria to be used in the future evaluation of new technologies and terminologies.

The NOSB voted to approve the excluded methods proposal, and these new technologies will not be allowed in organic.

My Take: This is a win, but the fact that I have to consider this a win is alarming. Why? Because there was some debate about excluded methods, mostly behind the scenes.


In 2010, the NOSB made a recommendation to ban hydroponics, a system which grows terrestrial plants in water with their roots in nutrient systems. The USDA’s National Organic Program refused to accept this recommendation and some organic certifiers have since certified many hydroponic operations as organic, due to a lack of guidance from the USDA.

The hydroponics issue boils down to whether a plant must be grown in soil or not. The original definition of organic, as written in 1995, included the word “soil”, while a revised definition of organic production, as written in 2002, omitted “soil” and used “biological practices” instead.

Other forms of growing plants in water or in other solutions, such as bioponics (bacteria added to the water), aquaponics (fish added to the water) and container systems (plants grown in peat moss, coconut fiber or mulch), have added further complexity to the matter.

The NOSB voted to send the whole hydroponics debacle back to a subcommittee for further clarification and definition.

My Take: This is a big loss. I am an advocate for hydroponics and very much appreciate its value to society, but I don’t believe that hydroponics is organic.

The foundation of organic is growing plants in soil. Period.

And many others agree. Mexico, Canada, Japan, New Zealand, and 24 European nations all prohibit hydroponic vegetable production to be sold as organic in their own countries. We ought to be working on strengthening organic standards in the U.S. rather than loosening them.

A legal complaint was filed a few weeks ago regarding the USDA’s allowance of hydroponics in organic, but it is uncertain what impact that will have. With five new NOSB members joining in early 2017, one could safely conclude that hydroponics won’t be voted on again until the fall of 2017 or sometime in 2018.

However, this is a fight that is not going to fade away. There is a lot of discussion taking place offline that I will get into in future blog posts. Stay tuned, as this is an incredibly important matter for many organic farmers and consumers. Livelihoods are at stake here.


In St. Louis, I was also very busy interviewing many different people and organizations within the organic sector, including:

Lisa Stokke, Co-Founder of Food Democracy Now! on the new report that FDN just put out about massive glyphosate contamination.

Jim Gerritsen, organic farmer, founder of Wood Prairie Family Farm in Maine, and President of Organic Seed Growers and Trade Association, on hydroponics not being rejected and the pre-emptive lawsuit against Monsanto that went to the Supreme Court.

Nate Lewis, Farm Policy Director, and Gwendolyn Wyard, Vice President of Regulatory and Technical Affairs, at the Organic Trade Association, on genetic engineering and hydroponics in organic.

Cameron Harsh, Senior Manager for Organic and Animal Policy at the Center for Food Safety, on carrageenan and genetic engineering in organic.

Diana Martin, Director of Communications at Rodale Institute, on feeding the world organic and the new Organic Farmers Association.

(Hydroponic production. Does this look “organic” to you?)

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