Shock, horror–some organic farmers have been using synthetic fertiliser

One problem with idealistic proposals to expand world acreage devoted to organic farming is there is not enough manure in the world to satisfy the fertiliser needs of organic farmers if they were to attempt to feed more than a few percent of the total number of people.

We don’t have enough nitrogen to feed the world in the natural sources of fertiliser that organic farmers are allowed by the “artificial” rules they have set for themselves. Attempts to expand acreage devoted to organic farming are severely restricted by the availability of essential nitrogen fertiliser components. We need extra synthetic fertiliser to do the job. We cannot rely on the organic approach for more than a modest fraction of the worlds food.

This fact of life has been well documented by Vaclav Smil  in several books, including Enriching the Earth: Fritz Harber, Carl Bosch, and the Transformation of World Food Production MIT Press 2001.

Is it then surprising that some members of the organic food industry cheat when it comes to fertiliser, by using synthetic nitrogen to supplement their “organic” fertiliser manure?

This cheating has shown up in a recent report in the LA Times:

Organic fertilizer maker accused of using synthetic chemicals
Kenneth Noel Nelson Jr. is indicted on 28 counts of mail fraud in connection with an alleged years-long scheme to dupe farmers and agriculture product distributors.
By P.J. Huffstutter, Los Angeles Times
March 11, 2011

To organic farmers, Kenneth Noel Nelson Jr. was the man with the golden manure: It was rich with Mother Nature’s finest waste, robust for the soil and cheap in price.

But to federal prosecutors in California, Nelson’s organic fertilizer empire had developed a stench.

On Thursday a federal grand jury indicted Nelson on 28 counts of mail fraud in connection with an alleged years-long scheme to dupe farmers and agriculture product distributors. The indictment accused Nelson, 57, of selling premium-priced liquid fertilizer touted as made from all-natural products such as fish meal and bird guano that instead was spiked with far cheaper synthetic chemicals.

The scheme, according to the federal indictment, enabled Nelson to become the largest purveyor of organic fertilizer to farmers in the western half of the U.S. and pull in at least $9 million in sales from 2003 to 2009.

This is the second indictment of an organic fertilizer producer in California in the last five months. It also has fueled fears among some farmers about possible contamination of their pristine fields and has raised questions about whether consumers bought produce that was billed as organic but may not have met federal organic requirements. Many consumers who opt to pay a premium for organic goods do so because they don’t want pesticides and synthetic chemicals to be used in the production of their food. (more at link)

David Tribe

Written by David Tribe

David Tribe’s research career in academia and industry has covered molecular genetics, biochemistry, microbial evolution and biotechnology. He has over 60 publications and patents. Dr. Tribe's recent activities focus on agricultural policy and food risk management. He teaches graduate programs in food science and risk management as a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Agriculture and Food Systems, University of Melbourne.

10 comments

  1. Normally, organic producers and their fellow travelers in the protest industry are jubilant when it is discovered that the crops or food involved have been ‘contaminated’ by inadvertent contact with big business and its products. Which makes one wonder why this hasn’t triggered a massive business extinction event in the West Coast organic industry. Or lawsuits by organic consumers who were ‘contaminated’ by ‘contaminated’ conventional food.

  2. When reading stories like this I feel sorry for the organic producers who have worked hard to establish a trustworthy industry and who now have to face serious problems for people like Mr. Nelson. Situations like this are also sad for the consumers who are willing to pay higher prices for what they believe is healthier but are misled by profit seeking companies.

  3. I dunno that this should change anyone’s view on whether the industry as a whole is trustworthy or not – in my opinion they’d only be called untrustworthy if they knew the product they were buying (the fertilizer) wasn’t usable under the organic standard.
    There should of course be cries from certain parts of the movement to shut all these farms down for 3 years (or revoke their organic status for said period at least), in exactly the same manner they believe farmers who have inadvertent miniscule presence of transgenes should be stopped from selling ‘organic’ – cries that should be ignored, but I think they should occur for the sake of consistency.
    As an amusing side thought – how long until we begin hearing claims that this is the reason we don’t see health benefits of eating an all organic diet? It wasn’t all organic!

  4. Good call. Perhaps those in that movement who claim that organic yields are ‘not that different’ from conventional or GMO crops were observing the same material. I guess that sword would cut both ways.

  5. Ewan,
    There is/are organic farmers in Iowa who have a different take on certification.
    ‘Organic agriculture threatened by GMOs’, Des Moines Register, March 9, 2011,
    http://www.desmoinesregister.com/article/20110310/OPINION04/103100328/Organic-agriculture-threatened-by-GMOs
    Turns out they lose certification on a one crop/year basis with no intervening transition period! And it’s product-based, not process-based! And if you disagree, you’re ‘ignorant’!
    Turns out, the author is trying to spin the story so that he and other farmers look like victims/martyrs. Actually, there’s a kernel of truth there.
    You see, there are lots of organic farmers who sign delivery contracts for their harvests. It often happens that these contracts have a zero-tolerance clause. Any detectable amount of herbicide, pesticide, or GMO, and the contract is void. Which isn’t very bright.
    But the crop is still certifiable under Federal regs. Boo hoo, he’s not a victim after all.

  6. A link to this editorial was sent out via the Iowa State Sustainable Agriculture list serv. My response has so far gone ignored by the students. You can find it below.
    With all due respect, Stefans is incorrect.
    The USDA has stated clearly that the organic standards are process based. Farmers pursuing organic certification aren’t permitted to plant genetically modified crops* but as long as they are taking reasonable precautions against pollen drift their certification remains (provided all other requirements are met, of course). Perhaps Iowa has different regulations?
    Unfortunately, the national regs aren’t as clear as they could be. Please find attached a 2004 letter from Bill Hawks then the Under Secretary of Marketing and Regulatory Programs at the USDA to Gus Douglass then the Commissioner of the National Association of State Departments of Agriculture, where this issue is laid out plainly.
    The National Organic Program does allow for testing for cross pollination with genetically modified crops on an optional basis but there is no threshold at which an organic crop would lose certification. Attached you can find comments on testing from the NOP that includes comments on genetic modification.
    To reiterate: there is no requirement for testing of organic crops for cross pollination with pollen from genetically modified crops. If certifications are being taken away despite reasonable precautions being taken then those farmers might want to pursue some sort of recourse with the supervisors of the certifying agents that have inappropriately removed certifications (assuming that Iowa doesn’t have more restrictive regulations than the national regulations).
    Of course, what “reasonable precautions” are will vary widely depending on crop species and local factors such as weather and landscape. Ideally, both neighbors will take steps to ensure that cross pollination is minimized. Not only is it the right thing to do, but it will help avoid lawsuits. You might argue that this is unrealistic but the reality is that there are going to be farmers next to each other who for whatever reason want to avoid cross pollination and lawsuits aren’t good for anyone. If anyone is interested I have written an article about reasonable precautions here: https://biofortified.org/2011/01/case-law/
    To move forward in a positive way for all farmers I believe all stakeholders have a responsibility to find ways to actually coexist, and the USDA ought to be leading from the front, but that’s going to take positive pressure from us. Perhaps leaping to Godwin isn’t quite the best way to get started. [this sentence in response to a comparison a student made between the USDA and the SS]
    Sincerely,
    Anastasia Bodnar
    PhD Candidate in Genetics, Minor in Sustainable Agriculture
    http://geneticmaize.com
    * Title 7 part 205 Organic agriculture only mentions genetic modification once, in section 205.2 Terms Defined. “Excluded methods. A variety of methods used to genetically modify organisms or influence their growth and development by means that are not possible under natural conditions or processes and are not considered compatible with organic production. Such methods include cell fusion, microencapsulation and macroencapsulation, and recombinant DNA technology (including gene deletion, gene doubling, introducing a foreign gene, and changing the positions of genes when achieved by recombinant DNA technology). Such methods do not include the use of traditional breeding, conjugation, fermentation, hybridization, in vitro fertilization, or tissue culture.”

  7. “farmers might want to pursue some sort of recourse with the supervisors of the certifying agents that have inappropriately removed certifications (assuming that Iowa doesn’t have more restrictive regulations than the national regulations).”
    In another aspect, Iowa certifiers/regulations would be lax in comparison with Fed. regs. Once decertified under Fed regs, the farmer has to go through the transition period all over again — according to this guy, no transition is required after decert.
    Either way, it’s good you brought up the possibility that Iowa may have a different set of regs. I will now search for them.

  8. Cool. Please let me know if you find anything. I wasn’t able to last night but I didn’t look very hard. I didn’t think of the possibility that a farmer would willingingly enter into a contract that would be invalidated if they had any gm or pesticide content – seems like a rather shortsighted things to do.

  9. OK, I’m back.
    Looks like Iowa has an organic program — sort of. The plan follows the Federal regs. Iowa’s organic program involves the Iowa agriculture department, which will act as certifier (of compliance with Fed. regs.) if requested. There are accredited private certifiers as well. (Speaking of private certifiers, I have to wonder if that system doesn’t involve conflicts of interest, lucrative opportunities for fraud, etc. For instance, a rubber-stamp certifier will get more business than someone strict, and the rubber-stamper will have a larger profit margin than the competition.)
    Link:
    http://www.iowaagriculture.gov/AgDiversification/organicCertification.asp

  10. Anastasia,
    Yes, signing a zero-tolerance contract is short-sighted. It might also qualify as gambling. (Okay, all farmers are gamblers, but not like this.)
    The temptation to guarantee 100% purity is huge, because the premiums offered are absolutely enormous. The problem these farmers run into is that they spend an inordinate amount of time and money to achieve results vastly beyond what the law requires. If the harvest is rejected, it can still be sold as organic, but the costs of extra wasted effort is punitively large.

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