Food Not Organic

Published on March 12th, 2011 | by Steve Savage

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Yet Another Organic Fertilizer Fraud: Should You Care?

The short answer is “no.”  Here is the longer answer:

Last Thursday the president of Port Organic Products Ltd was indicted on 28 counts of mail fraud for marketing an “Organic” fertilizer that was spiked with aqueous ammonia – a “synthetic” source of nitrogen which is not allowed under the Organic rules.  Nelson had represented the fertilizer as only getting its nitrogen from fish meal, bird guano, blood and bone meal etc – the natural sources of nitrogen that are approved  for Organic and which are suitable for making a liquid fertilizer.  This fertilizer was sold to many Organic farms for many years.  In 2007 the USDA stopped sales of a similar product from California Liquid Fertilizer and that company’s president, Peter Townsley was arrested and is awaiting trial.  So what is going on?

The Reason This Fraud Is So Tempting

When any farmer, Organic or not, is growing a high value fruit or vegetable crop with irrigation, the very best way to deliver the fertilizer (particularly the nitrogen fertilizer) is through the drip irrigation system.  This is called “spoon feeding.”  A careful grower can monitor the crop and only deliver the fertilizer during the periods of the growing season when the plant really needs it, and not before or after.  That not only saves money on fertilizer, it is far-and-away the best way to avoid water pollution or the emission of the potent greenhouse gas, nitrous oxide.  Spoon feeding like this is a laudable, sustainable practice for any grower, Organic or conventional.

There are many cost-effective liquid fertilizers that conventional growers can use for “spoon feeding” (UAN32 is probably the most common – urea ammonium nitrate).  Organic growers have many cheap sources of fertilizer based on manures and composts, but those are not suitable for liquid delivery and “spoon feeding.”  To supply enough nitrogen from compost etc. they have to apply tons of material per acre.  Those sources have soil quality advantages, but they also have greenhouse gas issues.  In any case, a cost effective, liquid fertilizer is a very attractive product for Organic growers.  Unfortunately, that offering is a little bit too attractive for an enterprising Organic fertilizer company without scruples.

Do The Plants Care?

A plant can only absorb nitrogen into its roots in two forms – nitrate (NO3-) or ammonia (NH3).  An Organic nitrogen fertilizer like composted manure contains some of both of these chemicals as well as other more complex chemicals that eventually get broken down into those same two materials over time.  Synthetic nitrogen fertilizers are composed of nitrate and/or ammonia and often urea (which rapidly converts to nitrate in the soil).  There are also “slow release” synthetic nitrogen fertilizers of various types.  Ultimately, all these sources, Organic of Synthetic, enter the plant as the exact same molecules.  In the case of “spoon feeding,” there is no real advantage of the Organic forms from either a plant growth or an environmental perspective.  But, the allowed Organic sources of nitrogen are far more expensive.  Hence the temptation to spike the Organic product with some ammonia etc.

Should You Care?

Yes, we should care that someone is making higher profits by lying about what is in their product.  The Organic grower is paying more and so is the Organic consumer.  It also undermines the Organic brand.  Technically, any Organic farm that used fertilizer from either of these sources should have to go through another three year “transition” period before the produce from their fields can once again be sold as “USDA Organic.”  The use of these fertilizers has been sufficiently widespread that this would mean that a huge slice of Organic production would have been hit with this either in 2008 or now.

Reason Prevails

In the case of the California Liquid Fertilizer fraud, the USDA Organic authorities decided that since the Organic farmers had no “intent” to use disallowed fertilizers, there would be no penalty or de-certification.  It is almost certain that this would be the case again.  A few Organic purists may be outraged, but few others will care and science is on their side.

This Does Raise Some Questions

  • Now that we have seen this as a pattern, does something need to change in the process of certifying Organic fertilizer manufacturers?  Do Organic growers need to become more skeptical about fertilizer offerings?
  • Considering the scientific fact that there is no difference to the plant (in the spoon feeding scenario), does this part of the Organic rules make any sense or does it just add cost?
  • There is a similar exemption for unintended synthetic chemical residues on Organic crops.  Why wouldn’t there be an exemption for any “unintended” cross-pollination with GMO crops (e.g. in the Alfalfa case)?

You are invited to comment here and/or to email me at feedback.sdsavage@gmail.com.

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About the Author

Born in Denver, now living near San Diego. Agricultural scientist for 30+ years with a Ph.D. in Plant Pathology. Have worked for Colorado State University, DuPont and Mycogen and for the last 13 years consulting for all sorts or companies, universities and grower groups. Experience in biological control, natural products, synthetic chemicals, genetics, GMOs and agronomic practices. Have given multiple invited talks on the interaction between agriculture and climate change (both ways)



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