Thursday, November 20, 2008

What's the Deal With Organic Fertilizer?

By Jeff Fairchild, Director of Produce for New Seasons Market

You may have seen the article in Monday's Oregonian about the California fertilizer supplier who was selling non-organic fertilizer and calling it organic (“Organic Farms Got Spiked Fertilizer”). Not only did the supplier participate in indefensibly unethical behavior, but the article indicates that there was a lag time of over two and a half years between the California Department of Food and Agriculture first learning of the issue and the time the product was finally removed from the market.

We were troubled to learn that non-organic fertilizer was used on supposedly organic produce, and I imagine that all of the farmers affected were very disturbed by the news. Organic farmers spend a lot of time and money to receive their certification, and for a fertilizer supplier to misrepresent their product is potentially devastating to organic farmers, both small and large, who could face huge penalties or even loss of their certification.

Even more distressing to us is the slow response time by the investigating agency. What seemed like a simple, open-and-shut case was drawn out over an inexcusably long period of time. While there are two sides to every story, I just can’t think of a good reason for that.

Our growing partners were as surprised and dismayed as we were to learn of this. Our Home Grown farmers are committed to growing organic produce for all the right reasons. They share the goal of not only producing abundant, fantastic produce, but also of being sustainable stewards of their land through biological pest control, crop rotation and soil balancing. Organic farming is far more than a business choice for them--it's a serious environmental commitment. Nobody takes it lightly when their livelihood and credibility are jeopardized by the dishonesty of a vendor.

Earthbound Farm, who was named in the article, has taken steps to avoid being defrauded in the future. They've issued a statement that says, "To protect the organic integrity of our crops and our farms from being victimized again, we have instituted a stringent organic verification process for all liquid fertilizers. Any of our farmers using any kind of liquid fertilizer must subject it to nitrogen testing and process validation by an independent, third-party lab to ensure that any product marketed as organic is legitimately organic." Of course, most smaller farms don’t have the resources to conduct their own tests of the fertilizers that they purchase, and have to rely on oversight by the certifying agencies. To their credit, certifying agencies across the country are ramping up their inspections of fertilizer producers, and some are asking that the fertilizers themselves be tested and approved by an outside party.

While this incident is discouraging, I don't think that we should lose faith in organic produce as a whole. We have to trust that third-party certifiers like Oregon Tilth are doing their jobs well, and preventing this from being a widespread problem. We're lucky to have so many fantastic local resources for organic produce, and our buyers have open, honest relationships with most of the farms that provide New Seasons Market's fruits and vegetables. We partner with Organically Grown Company (OGC), who is a certified organic handler with some of the most stringent standards in the country. We have complete trust in the auditing and record-keeping system that they have in place, as well as their 25 years of experience handling organic produce.

We know that this issue is as important to our growing partners as it is to our customers and to us, and we’ll be keeping an eye on the story with the hopes that this bad situation will lead to even better controls on the quality of the food we’re eating.


roguewoman said...

This is just another reason to point out that all food should be organic. Today the U of MINUTE published a report that vegetables absorb the antibiotics in manure, often user on organic farms as well as non-organic. Very disturbing.

roguewoman said...

Sorry U of Minnesota.

Grace Morgan said...

this is so sad- that company would stoop so low - and potentially hurt the work of so many hard working/ honest people all along the food chain! I hope there aren't any small time organic farmers who are going to lose their organic certification over this.