Organics in the News

“Organic” fertilizer may be organic,
or it might be a residual surprise
Organic farming groups request state fertilizer control officials to bring their use of the term into line with the USDA National Organic Standard – before the loose language causes more trouble.

By Jim Riddle

Action Alert

Say what we mean:
Speak up for congruity in organic labeling

Comments due: February 19

Readers who support changes to AAPFCO label claims for “organic” fertilizers, or who have first-hand experience with confusing and/or misleading claims, are invited to contact the AAPFCO Labeling Committee, Dr. Maryam Khosravifard, Chair, Agricultural Commodities & Regulatory Services, 1220 N Street, Room A-472, CA Department of Food & Agriculture, Sacramento, California 95814.

Readers should also contact their own state fertilizer control officials. A directory can be downloaded at

January 27, 2005: A farmer in the Northeast applied a product named “Organo” to his hayfields. The farmer had been assured by a salesperson that the product was an “organic” fertilizer, but later found out that the product was primarily dried sewage sludge. Those hayfields lost certification for three years.

A product “EKO Organic Compost”, which has been marketed as derived from municipal biosolids, is sold in Hawaii. The product has caused problems for new organic growers who are not aware of the product’s ingredients.

Farmers in the Midwest have run into problems using Milorganite®, which advertises itself as an “organic nitrogen fertilizer.” Milorganite is made from Milwaukee sewage sludge – perfectly legal and useable as advertised—but prohibited for use in organic production.

Other producers have had problems with potting soil and peat moss products that are routinely identified as “organic” yet contain prohibited synthetic fertilizers and wetting agents.

Could the same things happen today, now that the National Organic Program (NOP) regulation has been fully implemented? The short answer is “yes.” Because the USDA does not control the labeling of fertilizers, NOP regulations do not apply.

States control labeling choice

Fertilizer label claims are regulated by state fertilizer control officials, who belong to the Association of American Plant Food Control Officials (AAPFCO).

Under AAPFCO’s existing definitions the word “organic” has more to do with organic chemistry (presence of carbon) than with organic agriculture. AAPFCO allows use of the word “organic” on fertilizers that may contain urea, sewage sludge (biosolids) and other substances prohibited under NOP regulations. AAPFCO currently allows the terms “organic fertilizer,” “natural organic fertilizer,” “natural fertilizer,” and “organic base fertilizer.”

The Organic Trade Association (OTA), in a November 30, 2004 letter from Katherine DiMatteo, requested that AAPFCO amend its fertilizer labeling categories so that the word “organic” only appears on products that are allowed under the NOP for use in organic production.

Specifically OTA proposed that the term “organic” when used on a fertilizer product, means: “that the claim of the product, compound, mixture of compounds, or constituent to be organic has been allowed or allowed with restriction by the United States Department of Agriculture's National Organic Program as specified in 7 CFR Part 205.”

The NOP has specific requirements for product inputs that are allowed on certified organic farms. The rules permit natural materials and a specific list of synthetic materials as long as they meet a strict set of criteria. For example, while most composts are okay products, including composts, containing sewage sludge/biosolids are prohibited.

Farmers pay

Certified organic farmers who inadvertently apply products labeled as AAPFCO-approved “organic” that contain materials prohibited for use in organic production may lose their organic certification for three years, with ensuing loss of income.

The use of “organic” fertilizers containing prohibited ingredients can also have negative impacts on small farmers, who are exempt from certification, but still must follow the NOP regulation in order to sell their products as organic.

Small farmers, whose acreage is small enough to exempt them from certification, are especially vulnerable to misleading or confusing fertilizer labels. These farmers must follow NOP regulations if they are to sell their products as organic but because they do not go through a formal certification process they are not required to list their implements on an Organic System Plan nor are their operations reviewed by a certifying agent where a second pair of eyes may catch the error.

Consumers and backyard gardeners, who have a common understanding of “organic food” are also susceptible to deception. Often they are not aware of the idiosyncrasies of the system and understandably, believe that fertilizer products labeled “organic” are suitable for organic gardening or farming.

Although many “organic” fertilizers comply with NOP regulations, many do not. Certifiers, farmers, and inspectors cannot trust AAPFCO-regulated labeling as it exists, and must re-verify all products used.

Adjustment of fertilizer terms would help reduce the confusion caused by multiple definitions of the word “organic.” By adopting the uniform definitions being considered by AAPFCO, fertilizer manufacturers would be able to designate products that are suitable for organic production, and buyers would be able to clearly determine which products are suitable for use under organic certification. In addition, consistent use of the word “organic” would aid farmers seeking products that will not compromise their organic certification status or violate their status as exempt operations.

Board asks USDA to follow-up

The National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) in October 2004 endorsed changes to AAPFCO labeling claims to ensure that the word “organic,” when used on fertilizer labels, is consistent with NOP requirements. The NOSB has asked the USDA staff to examine the issue and communicate to AAPFCO USDA’s support for consistent use of the word “organic” on fertilizer labels.

AAPFCO’s Labeling Committee will consider the changes proposed by OTA at their mid-year meeting, scheduled February 19-24, at the Sheraton Four Points in Phoenix, Arizona. If the changes are supported by the Labeling Committee, new labels could be expected in 12 to 18 months.

Jim Riddle serves as chair of the USDA’s National Organic Standards Board and organic policy advisor for He was the founding chair of the Independent Organic Inspectors Association (IOIA).