You Are Here: Home » Blog » How-To Information » Beware the Phrase ‘Organic-Based’

Beware the Phrase ‘Organic-Based’

NOTE: This is an update of a position paper I first published in 2007

As I’ve traveled around the nation to talk about our nonprofit organization SafeLawns.org, I’ve sensed a tremendous amount of confusion about organic products. “What’s really organic, and what isn’t?” people ask.
Though chemical companies will say that an organic product is anything that contains a carbon molecule, the real definition is quite simple: the product must have originated from a plant, animal or mineral. Period.

WHEN SHOPPING
The Organic Trade Association recommends looking for product labels that say: “This fertilizer product is allowed for use in organic production;” “Meets National Organic Program requirements for organic production;” “ Suitable for organic farming;” “Acceptable for use in organic production;” “Meets the requirements of the National Organic Program (NOP) for use in organic production;” or “This product is listed by the Organic Materials Review Institute (OMRI) for use in organic production.” Such statements are currently in use or have been approved for use on labels of fertilizer and soil amendment products allowed in organic production.
Gardeners can find suppliers of fertilizer products allowed in organic farming and gardening on OTA’s Organic Pages Online under www.theorganicpages.com/topo/index.html. This directory includes a wide range of products such as blended dry fertilizers, composts, liquid fertilizers, micronutrients, soil conditioners, and a variety of other organic garden inputs. The OTA also urges gardeners to become familiar with the National Organic Program and its lists of prohibited substances or practices.

THE BIOSOLIDS DEBATE
“Urea and biosolids are examples of substances prohibited from use in organic farming that can be found in some fertilizers labeled ‘organic,’” according to OTA.
To me, something like urea offers no gray area. Synthetic nitrogen sources such as urea are created in a laboratory by intensely heating methane; it’s absolutely not organic. Biosolid composts and fertilizers, on the other hand, are the source of great debates among all sorts of people I respect on both sides of the issue. Biosolids — derived from human waste — have been the basis of Milorganite fertilizer for decades. This popular brand from the Milwaukee sewage treatment plant is used on lawns across America and many consider the product to be organic, although it would never clear OMRI or the NOP standards. Many lawn care companies, including Lawn Dawg in New England, use a biosolids product as the basis of a fertilizer program it claims to be organic.
When writing my book, The Organic Lawn Care Manual, I included this passage:

Opponents of biosolids point to reports of contamination with various toxic substances, including heavy metals and non-biodegradable PCBs, a group of known cancer-causing compounds. Some folks, frankly, can’t stomach the idea of having the byproducts of human waste applied anywhere on their properties. The biggest issue, for many, involves clarity. If biosolids are allowed to be labeled organic, consumers won’t know what is inside the product.
“Sewage sludge isn’t just human waste, it’s also everything else that people flush into the system — a fact the industry tries to obscure,” said Ellen Z. Harrison, director of Cornell University’s Waste Management Institute. “Many of these other materials never, ever break down. I don’t feel enough testing has been done. Very little data exists about the long-term effects of biosolids and land treatment.”

Having since personally visited the Milorganite plant, I now believe that company does as good a job as possible testing its product to make sure it is as free, as possible, from contaminants. I would now use Milorganite on my own lawn. I cannot say that, however, for all bio-solids products because I do not believe all companies and plants adhere to the strict Miloganite testing regimen.

BLATANT DECEPTION
The biggest area of confusion in the use of organic products, however, involves the deliberate deception perpetrated by some extremely clever marketers. That means that you, as a consumer, parent, pet owner and homeowner, need to be a really good student of the language. Watch closely, for example, for the phrase “organic based.” Those aforementioned chemists will claim that the most synthetic product in the world is organic.
To a deceptive marketer, the ambiguity about this word creates opportunity. By placing the phrase “organic based” on a bag, the marketers are duping people into thinking the product is perfectly safe and natural. Many organic based products do contain some organic materials, but most often also contain synthetic materials that are often of inferior quality and less expensive for them to produce.
The other favored word by marketing companies is that word “natural.” Absolutely no legal strangleholds are placed on the word “natural,” and therefore it can literally mean anything.
The best advice is to be sure to ALWAYS read the ingredient labels. If you see a whole bunch of chemical compounds listed on the bag, box or bottle, then chances are it’s not truly organic.

A FINAL WORD ON SAFETY
One other misconception concerns organics and safety. While organic products, as a group, are more sustainable, generally safer, and by far preferred to synthetic chemicals, it’s important to note that not all organic products are inherently safe — especially when it comes to organic insect killers and deterrents.
Pyrethrins, for example, have been proven to be dangerous in some cases — even through they are derived from flowers. Certain limestones, though they’re invaluable mined minerals, emit a dust that should be avoided by using a simple paper mask during application. Several other examples exist, but it’s worth stating again and again: always read and follow the label no matter what.

About The Author

Paul Tukey

An international leader of the green movement, Mr. Tukey is a journalist, author, filmmaker, TV host, activist and award-winning public speaker, who is widely recognized as North America's leading advocate for landscape sustainability and toxic pesticide reduction strategies.

Number of Entries : 1024
  • http://www.chippersinc.com/ Theron Peck

    As an owner of your book, and a life long landscape/turf professional- I agree with the massive misunderstanding regarding all kinds of phrases from organic to natural. While I will not dismiss the use of turf products in general without due cause, it is clear that education and discussion must continue. The ultimate goal of any turf, arborist, or PHC company would be to provide the best possible results while using the “best products”. Just like medicine, things have come a long way since the 80′s and there will always be organic and “traditional” products that will have necessary precautions- having used many myself.

  • http://itunes.apple.com/us/app/sales-management/id340015545?mt=8 Management book shop >> LTG Sales Management >> Twitted by iTunes.apple.com application

    … ] link is being shared on Twitter right now. @zenx, an influential author, said RT @1ndus: Xtreme … ]

  • Donald Wolf

    Mr. Tukey,

    I am a fertilizer official for the Oregon Department of Agriculture. Fertilizer products must be registered with our program prior to sale in Oregon, and nearly every other state. Our registration process includes approving labels and labeling–which includes all statements made about the product by the manufacturer. We also inspect retail and wholesale establishments to ensure products are registered, and sample products for laboratory analysis. Oregon also requires a heavy metals analysis for arsenic, cadmium, mercury, lead, and nickel for every product registered for sale. Only the three Pacific states regularly require heavy metal analyses.

    I read your Feb. 2010 post on the SafeLawns.org titled, “Beware the Phrase ‘Organic-Based’”. Your observation that there is a lot of confusion regarding the use of the term organic on ag, lawn, garden, and horticultural products is certainly true. I appreciate your effort at explaining the nuances of how some of these terms are used, but your description does not accurately describe the use of these terms, at least in Oregon. Focusing on Oregon might seem parochial, but if a company wishes to sell a product in Oregon, and use the same label anywhere else in the country, they must comply with our definitions. For product registration we use the following definitions:

    Organic. Organic ingredients were once part of living organisms, have an organic carbon base, are 100% natural, and are allowed in organic production. An example would be kelp to which nothing has been added.

    Natural. Natural ingredients are allowed in organic production, are 100% natural (i.e. exists in nature) and may be altered from their original structure only by physical manipulation (e.g. ground, or screened), but do not have an organic carbon base. Examples would be mined limestone and sulfate of potash, to which nothing has been added.

    Organic-based. A mixed product in which more than half of the materials are organic. If it is an organic-based fertilizer, more than half of the sum of the guaranteed primary nutrient percentages must be derived from organic materials. If it is an organic-based agricultural mineral, more than half of the sum of the guaranteed nutrient percentages must be derived from organic materials.

    Natural-based. A mixed product in which more than half of the materials are natural. If it is a natural-based fertilizer, more than half of the sum of the guaranteed primary nutrient percentages must be derived from organic materials. If it is a natural-based agricultural mineral, more than half of the sum of the guaranteed nutrient percentages must be derived from organic materials.

    Natural and Organic. Products containing both natural and organic ingredients may be listed as “natural and organic.” Product labels may list the proportions of these materials, i.e., “95% organic.” As an example a product made of 30% blood meal, 20% bone meal, 20% kelp meal, and 30% greensand could be described as “70% organic.”

    Organic Input. A product whose ingredients comply with the requirements of the National Organic Program (NOP) Final Rule as specified in 7 CFR Part 205.

    Allowed in organic production. This phrase is used to describe an input that complies with the requirements of the National Organic Program (NOP) Final Rule as specified in 7 CFR Part 205. Such ingredients may be used in organic production under certain circumstances, but may not be natural or organic. This definition also applies to other acceptable phrases used as descriptors which include, but are not limited to, “suitable for organic farming”, “acceptable for use in organic production”, “meets National Organic Program requirements for organic production,” “meets USDA standards for organic production,” or “suitable for organic gardening.” Product labels and labeling may not include any seal, logo, or similar device that would lead the consumer to believe the product has been approved for organic production under NOP.

    Approved for Organic Production. An organic input that is approved by a USDA Accredited Certifying Agent as meeting the requirements of the National Organic Program (NOP) Final Rule as specified in 7 CFR Part 205. Only approved organic inputs may use the logos issued by certifying agencies, state programs, or other recognized organic input listing services.

    You’ll note, for example, that compliance with NOP, such as an OMRI listing, is not enough to term a product as organic. NOP allows a number of synthetic materials, our definitions of “organic” and “natural” do not.

    I’d also like to thank you for reminding consumers that “organic” is not necessarily synonymous with safe. I’d also like to suggest that, contrary to the claims of some, organic fertilizers can be overapplied and misapplied. Most organic materials contain some amount of water soluble nutrients. When applied at a rate greater than the plants and soil can contain, water percolating through the material can carry excess nutrients to streams and other bodies of water. As I tried to explain to some folks washing their hair in a small high mountain lake, your shampoo may be organic and biodegradable, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have an impact or belongs in the lake.

    Cordially,
    Don Wolf
    Fertilizer Program Specialist
    Oregon Department of Agriculture

    For more information visit our website:
    oregon.gov/ODA/PEST/fertilizer.shtml

  • Pingback: What’s Organic? Further Clarity From Oregon | Safelawns Daily Post and Q&A Blog

  • http://dog-breeders.findincity.net/Nevada/dog-breeders_cities.aspx nevada dog breeders

    As an owner of your book, and a life long landscape/turf professional- I agree with the massive misunderstanding regarding all kinds of phrases from organic to natural. While I will not dismiss the use of turf products in general without due cause, it is clear that education and discussion must continue. The ultimate goal of any turf, arborist, or PHC company would be to provide the best possible results while using the “best products”. Just like medicine, things have come a long way since the 80′s and there will always be organic and “traditional” products that will have necessary precautions- having used many myself.

Scroll to top