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Does organic mean pesticide- free?


Labels can be so confusing these days. Just take a trip to your local supermarket like I recently did, and you too will start to wonder, what does it mean to be “organic”, “pesticide-free”? I have to admit I am still confused on the terms and many times have to just trust the label and wash my produce thoroughly.

organic-pesticide-free-2The term organic has evolved over the past two decades from a vague, often misunderstood term to a precise – though still often misunderstood – term. Fortunately for consumers, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has created specific conditions that farms must meet in order to label their products as organic.

To be certified organic, the USDA requires the following:

• The land that the crop is grown on must have been free of any prohibited substances for at least three    years.
• The farm cannot use any genetically modified products, sewage sludge (a type of fertilizer) or    irradiation.
• In most cases, a farmer must use organic seeds.
• Farmers cannot use any synthetic pesticides, herbicides or fertilizers to control pests and weeds.    Instead, they must use physical, mechanical, and biological controls. When necessary, an organic    farm can use certain approved biological or botanical substances for pest control.
• Farmers must keep detailed records, have an on-site inspection by an official certifying agent, and    pay all the fees associated with the certification.

More on organic certification can be found at:

However, when the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) first sought to define the term organic, in 1995, they did not consider the concept of growing organic crops without soil, so where does that leave those who produce or consume hydroponically grown products?

20130724_maxyield_006-compAlthough the full NOSB developed a recommendation to prohibit organic hydroponics in 2010, the National Organic Program (NOP) still has not adopted this formal recommendation. At this time, the USDA’s NOP still has not issued a proposed rule or established regulations based on the 2010 NOSB recommendation, nor has the NOP issued guidance to certifiers. This confusing situation means that certifiers must interpret the regulations on their own. For now, the future outcomes of the organic discussion are uncertain. At this time, some USDA-accredited certification agencies have certified hydroponic operations as organic, and others have stated that they would not certify them. In September of 2015, the USDA has created a Hydroponic and Aquaponic Task Force to examine production methods and determine how they align with organic regulations. Unfortunately, we still could be a couple years away from finding resolve.

For many shoppers, organic is synonymous with pesticide-free — but did you know produce can contain commercial pesticides and still be labeled organic? Be aware that there are no regulations or standards for using the term pesticide-free. Pesticide-free is still an unregulated term that requires the consumer to trust the producer whole heartedly. Because the U.S. Department of Agriculture hasn’t yet agreed to certify hydroponic produce as organic, the best advice is to ask the source of your produce supplier/grower if they are using pesticides in their greenhouses. For many this is rationally a more important label to look at.


Thankfully, in the CEA Learning Center here in South Windsor, Connecticut, Head Grower Tony Renzulli uses insects to control the population of damaging aphids.

“Years ago if you saw, let’s say, an aphid, you would get out the pesticides and just blast away, ya know? Now we release parasitic wasps. They’ll hatch and just seek out the aphids,” said Renzulli.


Like Tony at our CEA Learning Center, many more growers are adopting safe IPM practices. Hopefully, it’ll turn out that your best source of fresh, organically raised tomatoes next winter is a greenhouse just down the road, a conscious grower you know or a greenhouse operation you trust. While the lettuce produced locally here at our CEA Learning Center feeds the local school system, and nationally vertical farming begins to serve more produce-starved urban communities, there is no doubt that hydroponic farming is feeding global demand for healthy locally grown food, year round.


In many parts of the world, certified-organic systems must have soil as the cornerstone of their production. In the United States, certain types of hydroponic systems can become organically certified without the use of soil. While the reasoning behind whether or not hydroponics is organic is still under debate, hobby growers and consumers alike need not bother with the large-scale logic. Instead, they should decide what organic means to them and follow techniques to fulfill their own ideologies. In any case it seems reasonable and essential to do your homework both when reading the labels and verifying your growing sources.


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