The Center for Food Safety (CFS) and several agricultural firms have filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) challenging the agency’s denial of the group’s petition seeking to ban organic certification of hydroponic food growers. Ctr. for Food Safety v. Perdue, No. 20-1537 (N.D. Cal., filed March 2, 2020). USDA denied CFS’s January 2019 petition, and CFS argues that the denial was arbitrary and capricious and violates the Organic Foods Production Act (OFPA).

The complaint asserts that USDA ignored the National Organic Standards Board’s 2010 recommendation against certifying hydroponic operations as organic and “issued a blanket statement” allowing certification that contradicted the recommendation of the board and a hydroponics task force. “USDA offered no supporting rationale for its statement. USDA made the statement in a website announcement, without any opportunity for public input and without taking any rulemaking action,” the plaintiffs argue.

Further, “USDA failed to explain in the Petition Denial how hydroponic operations can meet OFPA’s mandatory statutory and regulatory terms that require producers to ‘select and implement tillage and cultivation practices that maintain or improve the physical, chemical, and biological condition of soil and minimize soil erosion;’ ‘manage crop nutrients and soil fertility through rotations, cover crops, and the application of plant and animal materials;’ and ‘manage plant and animal materials to maintain or improve soil organic matter content in a manner that does not contribute to contamination of crops, soil, or water by plant nutrients, pathogenic organisms, heavy metals, or residues of prohibited substances,'” per the OFPA. CFS seeks declarations that the petition denial violates the OFPA and the Administrative Procedures Act, that USDA “has created an inconsistent organic standard,” and that “hydroponic operations do not meet the soil fertility mandates of OFPA” and urges the court to direct USDA “to comply with OFPA by promulgating regulations and otherwise utilizing its authority under OFPA to prohibit organic certification of hydroponic operations.”

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