Vertical Farming Shoots…Organic in the Foot?

University of Arizona students work in the University of Arizona’s Controlled Environment Agriculture Center vertical farming facility for research, education and outreach. (Photo courtesy of Austin Smith)

Updated 25/06/2019 at 13.00CET (final paragraph)

The granting of organic certification to a vertical farming company in Singapore recently made headlines. Sky Greens, an urban farm in the island city state “has been awarded the world’s first national standard for organic vegetables grown in urban environments” according to local newspaper The Straits Times.

“Urban farms worldwide, including importers, exporters and retailers can apply for the SS 632 certification” the report said. “The certification may allow local urban farms to expand into markets outside of Singapore. Having a national organic certification will help local urban farms to be on equal footing with the US…” chair of the Food Standards Committee in Singapore said.

This single urban vertical farm produces half a tonne of salads each day, without LED lights, rotated by a water-pully system, using gravity from collected rainwater, rainwater which also grows the crops, the report said. Pests are avoided by earlier harvesting.

There is much hype about vertical farms. Lavishly funded videos of leafy greens abound online. Venture capitalists have put in significant investment, and it is seen as a solution for very dense urban areas – like Singapore – to meet some food challenges.

There is controversy too about vertical farms. Typically, energy use is very intense, while the lack of substantial veg is another concern – where are the turnips on a vertical farm? Or, any veg with a bit of heft for that matter?

But can vertical farms be organic? If they avoid mineral fertilizers and the other prohibited agri-industrial inputs (pesticides, herbicides etc) should they be allowed gain certification?

Not according to the European Union, which in its most recent update to the organic regulations, decided against continuing to allow vertical farms to gain organic certification.

Vertical farms are a relatively new phenomenon, and had been allowed into the organic system due to the lack of prohibited inputs and other basic compliances.

However, the most recent regulation emphasises the principle of soil-based production in all cases of land based organic farming. It states: “‘Soil-related crop cultivation’ means production in living soil or in soil mixed or fertilised with materials and products allowed in organic production in connection with the subsoil and bedrock.”

New EU Organic Regulation Agreed

In 2017, the Organic Regulation was finally agreed after one of the longest phases of debate and negotiation the EU has seen.

Negotiators from the three institutions took almost 20 months: including 18 formal “trilogue” negotiations and many other meetings (bilaterals and staff working group meetings) before the agreement of 28 June 2017. The new Organic regulation is Regulation EU 2018/848.

This included a provision to phase out produce from what are called “demarcated beds in greenhouses” (aka vertically farmed veg).

The European Council said: “Farmers utilising demarcated beds in greenhouses up until 28 June 2017 in Denmark, Sweden and Finland will be able to maintain this practice for 10 years. In the meantime the Commission will assess the compatibility of this practice with the principles of organic production and in light of the result of this analysis, it may table a legislative proposal.”

Clearly the growing season in these Scandinavian countries is shorter than in most parts of Europe. Much is produced indoors due to natural constraints. These countries were given ten years to phase out organic certification for vertical farms, while no new ones have been allowed into the system anywhere in Europe since mid 2017. This standstill gives Scandinavian producers enough time to make the necessary adjustments.

Another element that may yet prove contentious is the equivalence rules between organic in the US and EU. Curiously uncontroversial, considering some of the differences, and the scale of debate trade agreements generate between the US and EU in general, this is now another area where in some regards there are production differences.

Despite ongoing controversy, including legal appeals,  about it, US organic rules allow vertical farming. These Scandinavian companies could technically export to the US as organic, and continue to do so indefinitely – but not market as organic in the EU post 2027.

To take a practical example how will the equivalence rules function when the first US company tries to sell organic pesto made from vertically grown basil in Europe?

Hannes Lorenzen, then senior adviser in the European Parliament with responsibility for the passage of the organic regulation, strikes a note of caution: 

“Organic equivalence rules are trade rules. They must respect the highest degree of organic practices of a country, trade region or production method, meaning being close to principles and positive impact of organic practices on environmental protection, biodiversity and public health. The EU has clearly defined that in organic practices plants have to be grown in soil, not in hydro-culture or in substrates. This is to be applied in greenhouses as well as any kind of organic food production. There is nothing in the way of selling or exporting pesto from vertical urban farming. But it should not be called organic just because no pesticides are used.”

A version of this article appeared in the Irish Examiner farming newspaper.

Oliver Moore
About Oliver Moore 159 Articles
DR. Oliver Moore is the communications director and editor-in-chief with ARC2020. He has a PhD in the sociology of farming and food, where he specialised in organics and direct sales. He is published in the International Journal of Consumer Studies, International Journal of Agricultural Resources, Governance and Ecology and the Journal of Agriculture, Food Systems, and Community Development. A weekly columnist and contributor with Irish Examiner, he is a regular on Countrywide (Irish farm radio show on the national broadcaster RTE 1) and engages in other communications work around agri-food and rural issues, such as with the soil, permaculture, climate change adaptation and citizen science initiative Grow Observatory . He lectures part time in the Centre for Co-operative Studies UCC