The National Organic Standards Board, the industry body that advises the US Secretary of Agriculture on organic standards, has voted to allow some crops grown hydroponically to continue to be labelled organic under the National Organic Program (NOP).

The controversial decision follows two lengthy consultations on the subject and is set against a backdrop of nationwide protests against the inclusion of hydroponics and other non-soil growing techniques in organic standards.

Many organic farmers in America argue that managing soil biology and protecting soil health are founding principles of organic systems, and that hydroponics – which uses mineral nutrient solutions in place of soil – should be entirely excluded from organic systems.

But supporters of hydroponics say that soil-less systems allow for the production of ‘clean foods’ – they exclude the use of pesticides and herbicides – in environmentally sustainable ways. And they say that by embracing innovative technologies hydroponics makes organic food available to more people.

At this week’s highly anticipated NOSB meeting, the board voted to prohibit aeroponic farming – where plants are suspended in the air with their roots exposed – but allow hydroponic and aquaponic systems to continue to labelled organic under the NOP.

There were passionate submissions from both sides of the argument during the 13 hour session, and angry reactions from some farmers – the group Keep The Soil Organic, which recently held a series of nationwide rallies ahead of the meeting, had a strong presence in the room.

One stakeholder said: “We are tricking and deceiving consumers with organic hydroponics, and large corporations are just chasing and riding the coattails of the organic label. Hydroponic is a shortcut, and these methods have been wrongly certified. Container and hydroponics don’t have to wait three years to be certified.” Another noted dryly that “conventional farmers are beginning to talk about soil health and now organic is talking about growing without the soil.”

A report by US industry website recorded that a representative of IFOAM EU had “traveled 20 hours to submit evidence give a three-minute comment to rally against soilless organic production” and “suggested their inclusion could encourage IFOAM to urge renegotiation of the equivalency agreement between the EU and US.”