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‘Spiked’ Organic Fertilizer
Raises Consumer Doubts
About Organic Definition

Jim Prevor’s Perishable Pundit, January 28, 2009

A hat tip to David Sasuga , founder of Fresh Origins, for sending along this fascinating piece by Jim Downing in the Sacramento Bee, titled Organic Farms Unknowingly Used A Synthetic Fertilizer:

For up to seven years, California Liquid Fertilizer sold what seemed to be an organic farmer’s dream, brewed from fish and chicken feathers.

The company’s fertilizer was effective, inexpensive and approved by organic regulators. By 2006, it held as much as a third of the market in California.

But a state investigation caught the Salinas-area company spiking its product with ammonium sulfate, a synthetic fertilizer banned from organic farms.

As a result, some of California’s 2006 harvest of organic fruits, nuts and vegetables — including crops from giants like Earthbound Farm — wasn’t really organic.

According to documents obtained by The Bee through a Public Records Act request, California Department of Food and Agriculture officials were notified of the problem in June 2004 but didn’t complete their investigation and order the company to remove its product from the organic market until January 2007.

State officials knew some of California’s largest organic farms had been using the fertilizer, the documents show, but they kept their findings confidential until nearly a year and a half after it was removed from the market. No farms lost their organic certification.

The nonprofit California Certified Organic Farmers, which certifies about 80 percent of the state’s organic acreage, decided not to penalize farms that had used the product on the grounds that farmers did not know they were using an unapproved chemical…

Above all, the California Liquid Fertilizer case shows how much the organic regulatory system depends on trust….

The biggest organic operations now cultivate thousands of acres and sell to mainstream buyers like grocery chains.

With farms under pressure to cut costs and deliver big harvests, demand has grown for a new class of potent liquid fertilizers that help crops thrive.

“Organic agriculture is becoming very dependent on these amendments,” said Thaddeus Barsotti, who runs Capay Organic farm in Yolo County. “If you don’t use them, and your competitor is using them, you’re going to suffer.”

Liquid fertilizers work particularly well for cool weather crops like strawberries and salad greens, and market leaders Earthbound and Driscoll’s became big customers for California Liquid Fertilizer, according to executives from those companies.

But liquid fertilizers are used on farms producing virtually every variety of organic fruit, nut and vegetable. On his mid-sized farm, Barsotti likes to give his bok choy, cabbage and pepper crops a nitrogen boost early in the growing season, though he said he never used California Liquid Fertilizer’s products.

We’ve chatted with the Sacramento Bee before and specifically with Jim Downing here. They do some great reporting there, and this piece raises some important questions.

One issue is this preponderance of a growing reliance on organically permitted liquid fertilizers and chemicals in general. We think many consumers believe that organic farming primarily involves releasing lady bugs into the field. We suspect that they would be shocked at how many chemicals are used in organic agriculture.

Certain things are inherently deceptive. We said here that Wal-Mart was being technically correct but fundamentally deceptive by including the sales of Indian River grapefruit in Florida or Sunkist oranges and Salinas lettuce sold in California as part of its “locally grown” program. So it seems that the use of a lot of chemicals in growing organically may conform to the law, but it doesn’t exactly conform to the public perception of what organic is.

The other issue raised by this piece is the question of whether organic certification is not too protective of the industry and too dismissive of consumers.

We can agree with not “penalizing” growers who didn’t know they were being sold a synthetic chemical. In other words they shouldn’t be fined or go to jail. On the other hand, if organic is to have meaning, consumers have to be able to rely on the certification to consistently mean something.

It is not really a question of evil intent or not; it is a question of consumer protection. If a Kosher hot dog manufacturer in good faith orders kosher beef but a vendor delivers pork and it is put into hot dogs and shipped, that hot dog manufacturer has to recall the hot dogs as they are falsely labeled and then the entire plant has to be made kosher again through a process involving both cleaning and rabbinic authorization.

This is not to punish the hot dog manufacturer but to protect consumers who wish to pay for kosher food.

Why would organic consumers merit any lesser protection?

Many thanks to David for passing on this article and thus encouraging us to think through such difficult issues.

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