Aquaponic Produce Certification

Aquaponics Certification

Our standards for Aquaponic Produce have been developed in consultation with the experts on our Aquaponics Advisory Council. We intend them to be a guide to best practices in ecological production, and our new certification program to be a valuable asset for aquaponic produce growers. 

We encourage all aquaponics producers to review our standards and apply for certification online.  


Frequently Asked Questions – Aquaponics

We encourage producers to use feed that is organically grown, and feed that does not contain primary catch. However, because the organic fish feed market is in its early stages, there is limited availability and an extremely high cost barrier. Therefore we do not require that fish feed be organic, and we will not offer CNG certification for the fish raised in a CNG operation. As organic fish feed becomes more available, we will revisit CNG fish feed standards. CNG draft standards prohibit fish feed that contains (or is) medications, hormones, or human or other animal waste.

Certified Naturally Grown is a Participatory Guarantee System, or “PGS”, and as such relies on peer reviews instead of third-party inspections. We do not hire inspectors. With CNG, it’s other producers, typically ones who are Certified Naturally Grown, who conduct the inspections. Inspectors might also be certified organic or non-certified aquaponic producers using natural methods. For full details on inspector options, see section 12 of the Aquaponics Standards. All certification reports are posted to each CNG producer’s profile, along with the inspector’s name, farm name, and signature. All CNG producers agree to conduct an inspection of another CNG producer if there is one within an hour’s drive who needs an inspection. Peer inspections are done by unpaid fellow producers.

Learn more about PGS, an internationally recognized grassroots approach to certification, at ifoam.org/pgs.

We discovered that there are very few commercially viable hydroponic operations that rely on natural fertility sources. The NOP has recently begun to certify hydroponic operation and allowed the use of synthetic, OMRI-listed nutrient solutions. CNG does not allow the use of these synthetic nutrient solutions. While we have heard from a few hydroponic producers who are confident it can be done, at this time the number and track record of such producers is too small to justify developing a whole new certification program. 

Factors impacting fish health include the following: handling, transport, and harvesting practices; temperature, pH, light levels and stocking densities; feed type and quantity; water quality, filtration and dissolved oxygen; biosecurity and hygiene.

Aquaponics combines aquaculture (raising fish or other aquatic animals) with hydroponics (growing plants in water) in a bacteria-mediated symbiotic, closed-loop, system. The waste produced by aquatic animals is converted by beneficial bacteria into nutrients that the plants can abosorb. In turn, the plants purify the water before it is returned to the fish.

Just the plants will be CNG certified. There is only a very small supply of fish feed that would meet CNG standards for livestock certification, and that supply of organic fish feed doesn’t contain fish meal, an ingredient which professional producers consider essential to ensure palatability. That and other features of aquaponic fish management lead to the decision to postpone CNG certification for aquaponic fish until a later date.

Recycled plastics present an increased rate of degradation and risk of leaching compared to virgin plastic, and additional risks posed by chemicals that may be added to plastics shipped overseas for recycling.

Yes! We launched our aquaponic and mushroom certification programs in 2016. Be sure to review the standards and register for updates on our Mushroom and Aquaponics pages.

In response to public comments, we made some changes to the draft standards. It is prohibited for IBC totes to be brought into an already CNG-certified operation. However, recognizing that many start-ups use IBC totes, the revised standards will allow IBC totes to be grandfathered in to CNG operations, but ONLY IF a) they were in use by that operation prior to certification, and b) they were either purchased new or it can be verified that they were only used for food-grade purposes prior to use by the aquaponics operation. It is expected that the grandfathered IBC totes will eventually be replaced. CNG has prohibited the introduction of IBC totes to a CNG aquaponics operation because they are designed for a one-way trip, not continuous use, so they are subject to degradation – just like water bottles and milk jugs – and shouldn’t be relied upon for long-term use in a commercial aquaponics operation where food is being produced for sale to others.  

After we begin to accept applications from aquaponics producers, those that are accepted into the program will be listed on our website at certified.naturallygrown.org. Visitors can see a listing of all CNG producers in a particular state, or search for aquaponics producers within a given radius from their town or zip code. 

We are aware of concerns about off gassing and leaching, but there isn’t conclusive scientific evidence that would justify prohibiting them. These materials may be prohibited in the future, pending more evidence.  

In response to public comments, we updated the standards to allow for soil, compost, and vermicompost to be used in dead-end or non-recirculating sections of the system. These materials are natural, non-synthetic sources of nutrients. Many aquaponics systems function perfectly well without the use of these materials, but some producers find soil, compost, and vermicompost useful. CNG’s revised AP standards will allow their use in CNG operations, as long as the water does not recirculate from the portion of the system where those materials are used. 

Many of the components in aquaponics systems are plastic. However, they are generally reusable and have a long useful life. Soil-based farms also routinely rely on a lot of plastic products (pots, landscape fabric or mulch, drip tape, irrigation pipe, twine), which tend to have a relatively short useful life and are discarded annually, or bi-annually.

Minimally processed forms of calcium carbonate are allowed such as dolomitic lime and oyster shell flour. However, most pH buffering materials are synthetic, and at this time most producers consider them necessary to achieve a steady and balanced pH without causing stress for fish and the system as a whole. CNG allows these synthetic materials (such as calcium hydroxide, potassium hydroxide, and others), at least until further developments in the field of aquaponics yields a more natural alternative.

They are allowed as long as they don’t contain synthetic fertilizers. These are products where fibers (peat or coir in the case of most grow plugs, and mineral fibers in the case of rock wool) are compressed and held together with binding materials. The structure provides a porous growing medium that provides structural support to plant roots while allowing the right mix of air and water to reach the roots.  Certified Naturally Grown views these products as essentially serving the same function that plastic pots serve on soil-based farms.

  • It uses 90% less water than soil-based farming
  • It can produce fresh, local produce and fish year-round
  • It produces food reliably without the use of synthetic chemicals.
  • Local food can be produced in places where soil-based farming is extremely difficult or unwise, such as where there is drought, soil contamination, or high-density urban spaces.

Since Certified Naturally Grown does not require any particular design or kind of system, it is not possible to set very specific standards for assessing whether a system is performing functions critical to the overall health of the system. There are just too many variables. However, CNG does require Producers to ensure that their aquaponic system is designed to adequately perform these essential functions. In the application process, producers will be required to describe in their own words how their system is designed to perform these functions.  A preliminary assessment will be based on the answers they provide initially, and in subsequent correspondence. Further assessment will be made by the inspector during an on-site review. During this review, recommendations may be made for system improvement. Indeed, this is one of the benefits of our peer-review system! But, if there is disagreement between producer and inspector about what is adequate, the case may be taken up by CNG’s Aquaponics Advisory Council, if there isn’t precedent, or by CNG staff, if the Council has already addressed the particular question.