Vertical farming is an innovative approach used to produce crops in urban areas that can supply entire cities with fresh and healthy food without depending on traditional agriculture. There is an ongoing heated debate, though, as to whether vertical farming produce should be awarded an organic certification or not.
In the EU, vertical farming produce can’t be certified as organic due to the requirement that only crops grown in soil can qualify for such certification. In the US and Asia, vertical farms can be certified organic, and there are already examples of companies certified.
However, the regulations for organic production and certification vary from one country to another, with some authorizing the labeling of vertical agricultural products as organic and others strongly opposing it. In this article, I will review some of these regulations and also show you the difference between being certified as organic and actually being organic.
Organic Growing Practices in Vertical Farming
Organic agriculture has received a great deal of attention over the last few years. An increasing number of people are now choosing organic products not only for their healthy properties but also to reduce their carbon footprint.
Organic farming is about producing high-quality crops that have the least possible impact on the environment. Meaning, the use of harmful synthetic chemicals such as pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, and other soil and water contaminants is strictly prohibited. Farmers are recommended to use organic seeds if possible and to categorically avoid using genetically modified seeds (GMO). In organic farming, every step of the process should be in full harmony with natural ecosystems and habitats.
Vertical farming, on the other hand, represents a more modern approach to the traditional organic farming system. Plants are grown indoors through automated systems such as hydroponics, aeroponics, or aquaponics, where the soil is replaced with water and nutrient solutions or biomass waste.
Due to the absence of soil and sterile indoor conditions, the risk of contamination is close to zero, thus eliminating the use of pesticides and herbicides. Since biotic and abiotic factors are negligible in vertical farming, non-GMO seeds and seedlings can thrive easily without experiencing external stress.
Vertical farms have a positive impact on the conservation of natural resources as well. They have implemented advanced systems that collect rainwater and water released by biological processes and then reuse it to irrigate the plants. Natural light and effective state-of-the-art LED systems powered by renewable energy are used as a source of energy.
Certified Organic vs. Organically Grown
The term “organic” can have a different meaning to different people or entities. For the government, the word “organic” refers to foods and products that have been grown in accordance with their regulations. Whereas for committed farmers, it represents agricultural products grown in harmony with nature and without artificial additives.
Certified organic products can be easily recognized by a distinctive stamp affixed to the packaging. All those products containing this seal have been produced according to the government’s organic standards. Organic certification allows farmers to label, advertise, and sell their products as organic.
To obtain an organic seal, farmers must submit an application to the corresponding authorities and follow their strict guidelines, including a regulated list of pesticides, herbicides, and seeds. This is followed by a comprehensive inspection of soil and crop conditions, irrigation systems, equipment, and storage facilities. The organic certification process is highly regulated by the government, and it assures consumers that the products they purchase and consume are, in fact, organic. Moreover, if these farms fail to follow these guidelines, they run the risk of severe fines and revocation of their organic certification.
The term organically grown, on the contrary, is used to describe products that are grown using organic techniques but are not officially certified by the government. Farmers cultivating these practices are committed to using only natural fertilizers (such as compost and manure), organic seeds, and enhancing soil health through natural techniques like crop rotation.
Food grown this way cannot be advertised or labeled as organic because it has not gone through the official certification process. Consumers need to trust farmers and brands that the products they are purchasing from them are indeed grown organically and do not contain harmful synthetic chemicals.
Organic Certification Rules in Different Regions
There are striking differences in organic certification requirements and regulations in different parts of the world. Let’s explore what is required to receive organic certification in the USA, EU, and Asia.
In the US, organic farms applying for organic certification must guarantee that they have not used prohibited substances and genetically engineered seeds for at least three years before certification. Other crucial requirements include:
- The use of organic seeds and seedlings for yearly crops, if available and if not GMO seeds, can be chosen from the provided list.
- Radiation and sewage sludge are strictly forbidden.
- Seeds that are coated or treated with prohibited chemicals should not be used.
Particular attention must be given to soil health, in particular to the enhancement of the biological, physical, and chemical properties of soils. Recently, the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) confirmed that vertical farms using hydroponics systems are eligible for organic certification if they also meet other requirements. This allows US-based vertical farms to expand their market and sell their products as organic.
The European Union recently decided against the organic certification for vertical farming outputs. The EU’s Organic Food Certification Regulation clearly states that only those farms that plant their crops in the soil can apply for the certification program. These regulations exclude vertical farms from this program, even if their products are organically grown.
The EU’s organic certification requirements pay close attention to soil health, and according to several EU officials, vertical farms do not reflect the spirit of organic farming. This decision has hit a lot of EU-based vertical farms, such as Nordic Harvest, that now are unable to advertise and sell their organically-grown produce as certified organic.
In Asia, Singapore has given the green light to local vertical farms to apply for organic certification. A decision aimed at building consumer confidence in locally grown, organic food and addressing persistent challenges such as lack of soil and limited arable land. Requirements for organic certification in Singapore are similar to those applied in the US, but with a special emphasis on the use of natural fertilizers, such as manure and compost.
Companies Granted Organic Certification
In those regions and countries where vertical farms are eligible for organic certification, a number of farms have already been awarded the organic label. Let’s take a closer look at how two vertical farms in Asia (Sky Greens) and the US (Volcano Veggies) produce their organically certified vegetables and herbs indoors.
The Singaporean-based “Sky Greens” became the world’s first urban vertical farm to receive the Singapore Standard 632 (SS 632) certification for organic production in 2019.
Sky Greens has developed a system that does not rely heavily on natural resources, and that is more focused on up-cycling. Their veggies and herbs are planted in revolving shelves within a glass building, allowing them to receive equal amounts of sunlight throughout the day. These shelves rotate through a system of water pulley that collects rainwater, which is later used for irrigation purposes. This system has a minimal climate and environmental impact by significantly reducing the use of water, electricity, and arable land. Moreover, the farm grows 10 times as many vegetables as traditional farms.
Located in Oregon, USA, Volcano Veggies is one of the two vertical aquaponics farms in the world awarded organic certification. They have developed a sustainable farming system that combines aquaculture with indoor farming. Chemical fertilizers are replaced by organic waste generated by their fish farms.
A dehumidification system recaptures water loss from the processes of evaporation and plant transpiration, thus reducing their water usage by 99% in comparison to traditional farming. An extremely efficient LED lighting system is used as a source of energy for the plants and heat for the fish tanks.
Vertical farms like Sky Greens and Volcano Veggies give people living in urban areas easy access to extremely fresh, organic products. By reducing their production costs and consequently their price, they make organic food accessible to everyone.
To conclude, vertical farming is capable of producing organic products with great nutritional value and minimal impact on the environment and climate. However, their organic certification falls entirely within regional or national laws and regulations. Depending on where these vertical farms are located, some of them will be certified as organic, and others will only offer organically grown products without organic certification.