Organic? Not So Much.


Ooops.  According to this fine investigative piece in the Sacramento Bee, a company called California Liquid Fertilizer (a subsidiary of a company called United Organic Products, which is now owned by a company called Converted Organics) has been adding ammonium sulfate to its liquid fertilizer and passing it off as approved for organic use.  Any number of certified organic farms used the fertilizer, which means that their produce was not actually organic–although the farms won’t be penalized since they couldn’t have known.

What a mess. According to the article, California Food & Ag officials were notified by a whistleblower in 2004 that a non-organic chemical was being added to the fertilizer, but they didn’t act for three years and have not taken the strongest actions against the company that they could have.

This points out several problems:  First, every state has different standards for how garden products like fertilizers, pest controls, and bagged soils must be labeled and analyzed. While the USDA has a standard, nationwide definition for the term "organic" as it applies to the crops, how that term may be used on bottles and boxes of fertilizers differs from state to state.

Second, any number of third-party agencies (like OMRI or Washington State, to name only two of many) can certify that a product contains only ingredients that are approved for use on organic farms.  But inspections are spotty, and–third– as the Sac Bee article points out, laboratory analysis can’t always tell the difference between, for instance, organic and non-organic nitrogen sources.

And finally–the article suggests that the CA Dept. of Food and Ag has been slow to act in part out of a desire to keep bad news about California agriculture out of the news following the E. coli spinach debacle. However, they did have time to issue press releases waiving health requirements for Santa’s reindeer and encouraging the purchase of California’s award-winning cheeses for the holidays.

So what’s the solution?  One uniform, nationwide standard for ingredients, labeling, and so on. It’ll keep fertilizer companies from having to go through fifty different agencies to sell their products nationwide, and free up more resources that can be used for better inspections and analysis.

Hmph.  Anybody using these Converted Organics products in the garden?


  1. Maybe the solution is for organic farms to really work in concert with nature–and forget about supplemental fertilizer in favor of their own compost.

  2. This is scary stuff in that it sounds a lot like what dishonest companies in China were (are?) doing. The whole idea of growing organically is that you know what your food has been exposed to. Now, you have to wonder. Thanks for bringing it to wider attention.

  3. I don’t know who carried this stuff. I have never seen it for sale around here.

    This is why I believe it’s important for companies to build trust amongst it’s customers, and the public. In the future, who you trust to do with business with be a big part of the shopping experience. Hence the reason I have been a proponent of blogging by business owners. It’s a start to building trust.

  4. From a theoretical perspective, a farm without supplemental fertilizer gradually ships off it’s nutrients in the products it sells.

    True, you can rely to a large extent on legumes to fix nitrogen. And some soils have large reserves of phosphorus, potassium, and other nutrients. But others do not.

    Don’t get me wrong, I’m an organic advocate. But in some cases, organic farms rely on tapping other waste streams, such as fish processing and composted wastes from livestock operations. (Correct me if I’m wrong, I think such composts are allowed but I haven’t followed the organic regs closely.) Sewage sludge has some issuses.

    Probably the best model for organic operations is the integrated crop/livestock farm, where produce or grain fields can be rotated with pasture and hay crops (including nitrogen-fixing legumes).

    But how many folks do you know who have the skills to raise veggies and animals on a large scale? We’ve got some huge investments to make in human capital if we want more organic farms.

  5. Let’s get all those Lehman Brothers people farming, Craig! They’re smart. They’ll understand the cycle of life if you explain it to them twice.

    Livestock plus vegetables equals magic. Bagged or bottled fertlizer plus vegetables equals who knows what? I know an incredibly ambitious organic farmer in my part of the world whose is a vegetarian herself–but began adding beef to her operation because she needed the manure.

  6. Did you state anywhere in YOUR article that they (California Liquid Fertilizer) was forced to stopped selling this product in 2007 and that Converted Organics bought out the company in 2008?

    You are just as bad as the people on wall street.

  7. I would like to see the ag/hort industry adopt the food labeling laws which are standard nation wide. Products can still get NOFA, OMRI or UDSA certification but all must use the same standard on labeling

    The TROLL

  8. Yes I am using Converted Organics products on My Farm and will continue to do so. This article is insinuating that Converted Organics is or has done something wrong. I will be forwarding this article to them.

    By the way did you know that Converted Organics is owned by a few lawyers

    Happy New Year.

  9. I think that a BIG mistake and major marketing ploy that many companies selling organic gardening supplies espouse is the idea that the words “organic” and “safe” mean the same thing. They don’t.

    There are organic supplamentals that are highly poisonous and synthetics that are relatively non-poisonous. (Depending on your definition–some people would say that coca cola is poison, while others would argue, not!) “The does makes the poison” is a cardinal rule of gardening.

    A standard way of labeling would make any item available for purchase easier to evaluate. However, I will never believe that a “stamp of approval” that says “Organic” is every a blanket “OK” to begin liberally spreading, pouring or consuming anything.

    My beef is not with any one product, but more with those who think “organic” is automatically the solution to everything. I do write for an organic gardening blog (linked from my name), but if you read my posts (Katie), you will see that I take everything with a grain of salt.

    If you really want to brush up on your organics, read Jeff Gillman’s new “The Truth about Organic Gardening.” It gives the most well-researched, balance treatment of organic gardening that I have ever read.

  10. Presumably, those lawyers at CO know more about the law than you seem to, David. I’ve yet to hear that citing a published newspaper article with links and attribution would be in any way actionable.

  11. Judging from the “Investor Relations Overview” page on their website it looks like they are owned by a couple of stock brokers.

    I’ve never seen such up to date stock quotes and Securities filing information ( by the minute ) published on an agricultural / organic fertilizer website.

    Will this bit of information reported by the Sacramento Bee also be published on the Investors Relations Overview page ?

  12. We can pass all the laws and standards we want. But to quote Joel Salatin, “you can’t legislate integrity.”

    Besides, as others have alluded to, people use the organic label as an excuse to shut off the critical-thinking part of their brains. Organic does not mean 100% safe, nor does it even mean sustainably farmed by small growers keeping dollars in the community. As far as I can tell, buying an “organic” tv dinner from a happy hippie green subsidiary of Big Agro is a vastly different animal from buying a tomato at a farmers market- even if the farmer hasn’t actually jumped through the hoops for certification.

    If we’re going to push for legislation, get rid of all these worthless standardized tests the public schools have to focus on. Re-introduce critical thinking in the schools, so that maybe the next generation will know to have some healthy skepticism and the ability to seek the truth for themselves.

  13. Big fan of organic methods. Urban composter for nearly three decades. Prefer that USDA spend its limited resources on something important – like, say, detecting toxins such as melamine in the food supply – than trying to distinguish “organic from non-organic nitrogen sources.”

    “Organic” has become little more than a label available to those who can pay for: agri-business. I think a better (long-term healthier) model is sustainability. Any outside inputs such as fertilizer – organic or otherwise – must be viewed as a debt that to be paid back to the long-term goal of sustainable agriculture. Craig and Michele have it right. Except it’s not just theoretical. It’s measurable in the depths and qualities of agricultural soils.

    Are we leaving things in better shape than we found them? If we’re not building up the soil – increasing the depth and fertility from year to year – it’s not sustainable. If we can only build it up with outside inputs – where does the feed for the animals come from? – then it’s not sustainable.

    If it’s not sustainable, then it’s agricultural mining, something that can only be paid back over centuries, if ever. We all know how well-equipped our economic systems are to deal with long-term benefits.

  14. “Organic” is such a loaded term. Clearly, regardless of gov’t agencies applying their own definitions to it, the term is as battered today as a snake oil seller’s wagon was 200 years ago.

  15. How come Superthrive is banned in Oregon? I never believed their hype but I guess they don’t want to divulge their special formula. The safest and cheapest remedies can be lost because testing costs too much today.

  16. As a seed company we have chosen to stay clear of the word organic at the moment as there seems to be some many other issues that are more important. For instance, just because it has been labeled organic does not mean it is not a GMO. Something we are seeing a lot more of in home gardening. Lots of folks are growing GMO seed in their gardens now and don’t even know it!

Comments are closed.