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New York, New Jersey Elevate Lawn Phosphorus Debate

This product, with 3 percent phosphorus (P), would be illegal under a new New York law.

This product, with 3 percent phosphorus (P), would be illegal under a new New York law.

Compile all the managed lawn surface in New York and New Jersey and, conservatively speaking, you’d probably be talking about 15 percent of the total lawn care industry in the United States. That puts billions of dollars and high emotion into play when the two states’ legislatures start passing lawn laws.

“Bills like the one in New York will effectively kill the organic fertilizer industry,” said John Weiss, the founder of Chickitty Doo Doo, a poultry-based fertilizer firm based in Wisconsin.

“For whatever reason, politicians like logical extremes, which invariably lead to illogical legislation,” said Paul Sachs, the founder of North Country Organics in Bradford, Vt.

The issue at hand concerns bans of fertilizers containing phosphorus on established lawns. New York Governor David Paterson just signed a lawn phosphorus ban into law on July 15, while New Jersey will continue work on its proposed ban next Thursday, Aug. 12, in a committee hearing open to the public. With algae-clogged lakes, rivers and streams dying off at an alarming rate — with phosphorus being one of the major known causes — at least a dozen other states have enacted some form of legislation banning or limiting the inclusion of (P) in the N-P-K on your bag of lawn fertilizer.

And while the surface of the argument would seem to indicate these legal bans are prudent governance, the bottom line is that it’s not so simple. Many soil scholars feel the bans are a waste of time; many organic fertilizer manufacturers worry their products, and maybe even their livelihoods, could soon be rendered obsolete.

What do we think? We’ll tackle the second issue first in this position paper:

ORGANIC VS. SYNTHETIC FERTILIZERS

To the average person walking into a Home Depot, or the rank-and-file state legislator, fertilizer is fertilizer is fertilizer. Some of the more enlightened folks may understand that some fertilizers are derived from chemicals in a laboratory and other fertilizers are derived from plant, animal or human wastes and byproducts — but even those folks don’t usually understand that synthetic fertilizers and natural “organic” fertilizers generally behave quite differently in the soil. Some dissolve in water readily and others are more “slow release” and bind to the soil.

“Many states do not account for the environmental risk differences among phosphorus sources,” said a report authored in Florida in 2008 that is parked on the website of Milorganite, a human biosolids (waste) fertilizer that has been manufactured in Milwaukee for more than 80 years. By exhaustively researching the differences in how different phosphorus sources leach, or not, Milorganite has been successful in gaining exemptions for bio-solids in most of the states where phosphorus bans exist.

Although New Jersey’s proposed bill would allow the exemptions for biosolids and natural products that contain up to 3 percent phosphorus, so far the New York ban signed three weeks ago does not offer any such distinction. Only two-thirds of one percent of phosphorus by weight in the bag is allowed under the New York ban. That low threshold is virtually impossible to reach in many organic fertilizers containing processed manures, fish and other meat byproducts — which are some of the major sources of organic lawn fertilizers. That deeply concerns the organic manufacturers.

“Manufacturers of synthetic chemical fertilizers can simply pull the phosphorus out of their products in the laboratory,” said Weiss, whose core lawn product contains 3 percent phosphorus. “With organic fertilizers, we cannot do that, whether the product comes from manure or composted food waste or sewage sludge. We worked and were successful in bringing language into the Wisconsin phosphorus ban law to exempt organic fertilizers made with manure or sewage sludge from the lawn fertilizer application law.”

“This New York ban is silly as it is written,” said a rep of one organic company who asked not to be identified just yet. “If this holds, then New York has essentially legislated the organic industry out of the lawn fertilizer business.”

“If the states really want to help the environment and promote organic solutions that deal with soluble phosphorus and nitrogen, then allowing not more than 1 percent phosphate in an organic product is the better way to go,” said Dr. William Sadler, the brand manager for Bradfield Organics.

“Or,” he said, “limit the phosphorus ban to chemical products.”

The cynics suggest that the chemical fertilizer industry in New York may be lobbying for the harsh ban, knowing how severely that it would restrict organic products. A company like Scotts Miracle Gro has a product offering 25-0-12 for lawns, meaning no phosphorus. But it also produces an 11-2-2 organic offering, which will now be illegal in New York unless something changes before the law takes effect in 2012.

The sponsor of the New York bill, Rep. Anthoine M. Thompson of Buffalo, does not appear to have been aware of the organic vs. chemical fertilizer issue when he and his aides drafted the bill. In his official statement, Thompson said he thought that “by reducing levels of phosphorus entering the environment, communities could save significant cost, because they would not be required to install as much storm water treatment systems in impaired watersheds.”

Thompson’s aide, Bill Nowak, took copious notes when SafeLawns contacted him this morning and he asked to be sent model language from Wisconsin, New Jersey and elsewhere about the exemption for natural fertilizers. If you would like to offer an opinion to Senator Thompson, email: athompso@senate.state.ny.us. Additional contact information is below.

SILLINESS OR GOOD SCIENCE?

Organic vs. synthetic fertilizers aside, emotions run strong on both sides of whether or not the lawn phosphorus bans are justified in the first place. We know, for example, that one pound of phosphorus that runs off into a lake can cause hundreds of pounds of algae to bloom. We know, too, that healthy, thick turf blocks soil and nutrient runoff into water. So the major debate concerns whether lawn fertilizer runoff really is a major contributing factor to algae bloom. Other sources of phosphorus such as leaves, pollen, soil erosion from housing development, runoff from pavement and poor agricultural practices are the real culprits, according to some.

“Phosphorus Bans Ignore the Problem’s Real Causes,” wrote Dr. Wayne Kussow of the University of Wisconsion. He’s one of the nation’s major go-to experts for those who would strike down all phosphorus bans.

On the other hand, Dr. John Lehman at the University of Michigan would disagree. In his study we blogged about here nearly a year ago, he found that the phosphorus ban in that state was apparently having a positive effect: http://www.safelawns.org/blog/index.php/2009/08/study-phosphorus-bans-appear-to-be-working/. If his study is replicated in Maryland, Minnesota, Maine, Vermont and other states where some form of ban exists, then the legislators’ best intentions will have been validated.

Another issue not lost in the debate is the need for phosphorus on lawns — given that most soil tests in most areas of the country will tell you that the soil already has plenty of phosphorus. By taking phosphorus out of lawn fertilizers, or even leaving it in at the most miniscule levels, overall lawn quality could diminish. Thin, bare lawns, especially near bodies of water, would cause even more erosion of soil and potentially even more algae bloom.

SO WHAT’S THE BOTTOM LINE?

Our fear is that, if New York’s law stands as written, natural organic fertilizers would essentially be legislated out of business. We cannot let this happen. Whereas careful, rational consideration is being given in New Jersey to acknowledging the differences between synthetic and organic fertilizers, New York’s seemingly arbitrary across-the-board ban needs further discussion.

Additional studies are needed to see if the Michigan results hold up elsewhere. If bans on phosphorus in lawn fertilizer are, in fact, reducing the nutrient load in bodies of water, then let’s push for national legislation that REASONABLY restricts these fertilizer products. Along with this legislative push in New Jersey and New York, let’s ask the lawmakers there to grant some money to the soil and water experts at Rutgers and Cornell Universities to study the post-ban runoff of phosphorus so that we know if their new laws are working as intended.

As for the question about lawns withering up and dying for lack of phosphorus, I don’t believe that’s going to happen — except, ironically, on chemically treated lawns where the soil is effectively dead. Living, breathing, healthy soil in a natural organic system is full of microbes that are constantly releasing phosphorus that occurs naturally in the soil. The one or two percent of phosphorus that is available in most organic fertilizer products is plenty to produce a thriving lawn; and once the organic lawn is established, little or no additional fertilizer will be necessary within a few years.

In the meantime, though, we need to stay on alert in every state where these bans on phosphorus — and also nitrogen — will now inevitably be introduced. Organic fertilizers should not be collateral damage of good intentions.

Offices of New York State Senator Antoine M. Thompson
Walter J. Mahoney State Office Building
65 Court Street, Room 213
Buffalo, New York 14202
P: 716-854-8705
F: 716-854-3051

Niagara Falls Office
Office of New York State Senator Antoine M. Thompson
1902 Main Street
Niagara Falls, New York 14305
P: 716-284-5789
F: 716-284-5820

Albany Office
Office of New York State Senator Antoine M. Thompson
Legislative Office Building, Room 902
Albany, New York 12247
P: 518-455-3371
F: 518-426-6969

FOR INFO ABOUT THE NEW JERSEY BILL, CONTACT:

Jane Nogaki
Pesticide Program Coordinator
NJ Environmental Federation
www.cleanwateraction.org/njef

223 Park Avenue
Marlton, NJ 08053
856-767-1110
856-768-6662 fax
856-912-6790 (cell)

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.sustainable-gardening.com susan harris

    Wow, terrific round-up, Paul. I’ll pass it on.

  • Milo Shammas

    You have summarized the crux of the matter quite well.

    It is all about water solubility or fertilizers becoming a part of a living soil. Water soluble chemicals are the heart of the problem simply because there is no way a plant’s roots can absorb all of the applied chemicals before they leach through the soil. Conversely, water insoluble organic materials are dependant of the biological activity in the soil are “slow release” by their very physical makeup.

    All of those passing legislation nationally should look at the makeup of all phosphates and their derivation without labeling all phosphorous as bad; plants need phosphates to grow and function properly at the cellular level. With broad-spectrum bans on phosphorous, the soil will eventually becomedepleted and plant growth will be inhibited.

    I am a firm believer that fertilizers should be exempt from these bans if derived from plant, animal or rock powders. Simply put, all materials found “naturally” are safe and slow in becoming soluble, thus pose minimal water pollution and ground contamination hazards.

    I am still not a fan of any biosolids products or sewage sludge as they are high in heavy metals and may potential contain pathogenic biotics.

    Thanks for writing a very informative piece.

  • John Rogerson

    Anything from manure to compost to synthetic fertilizers can leach into water and cause problems. That’s true. But you’d have to park your pile of manure or compost fairly close to the water’s edge for it to be a significant problem.

    The fact is that compost added to sandy soil that would otherwise readily leach will actually help the sandy soil be less prone to leaching. Applications of fish or other organic fertilizer can also increase the cation exchange of the sandy soils. Synthetic fertilizers NEVER increase the cation exchange. In other words, there is a lot to this issue.

    I applaud you for trying to bring a complicated issue to the masses. It’s clear you’re the leader of the organic lawn care movement for a reason and we’re lucky to have you. I’ll be joining your organization and making a donation tomorrow. Thank you so much for your work.

  • Ed Spillman

    It wouldn’t surprise me one bit if the chemical industry was in favor of these bans. They can easily have 40 or 50 percent nitrogen in a bag if they want to, with no phosphorus. Just look at some of the urea products already on the market. They’re gross. Or look at triple phosphate fertilizer. Equally gross.

    The chemical industry will try to tell these ill-informed legislators that all nitrogen or phosphorus is created equally and, of course, that’s not true.

    Check with the Rodale institute for this data. They’ve been measuring the leachate out of chemical vs. organic fields for something like 40 years. The data shows that the synthetic chemical fertilizer leaches far more.

  • Sara B.

    Anyone who does not have knowledge of agronomy should not be allowed to apply synthetic fertilizers if the truth be known. The ONLY products safe enough for homeowners to apply on their own are natural products that, by nature, move slowly through the soil.

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  • Paul Sachs

    I read the article and, for the most part, I thought it was fair and accurate. The only comments I’d add are: I would agree that a biologically active soil will provide the necessary amount of phosphate for plants, but there are too many instances where soils are not biologically active, primarily because they are treated with chemical fertilizers and pesticides. Without compost (which contains a lot of phosphate…especially when you consider the amount that’s normally applied) or organic fertilizer, it’s unlikely that a biologically active soil can be sustained. So, in this scenario, the elimination of phosphate, which means the elimination of compost and most other organic resources that feed soil biology, ultimately results in depleting biological activity and suppressing the release of bound phosphate in the soil.

    Thanks for all you do.
    Paul Sachs

  • Carl Reetz

    Very informative article. There is a lack of understanding between a granular and a liquid organic fish fertilizer. Dramm, Neptune’s Harvest and Mega Green have a 90 percent injestion rate — meaning the foliar feed goes thru the leaves, petals and stoma of a plant or the grass blades. A granular product has only a 40 percent injestion rate as it is applied to the soil. Once in the soil, it then moves up the roots.

    With an organic slow-release fertilizer, the turf will see benefits over a 12-week period according to a UMass study. There is no runoff with an organic fertilizer containing phosphorus as it stays in the soil. These points may be “lost” on lawmakers.

    Hope this is helpful.
    Carl Reetz, MegaBloom/MultiGreen

    Regards,

    Carl Reetz

  • Sharon Melzer

    Your article about phosphorus is generally good, but these phosphorus bans miss a major point. It’s just as important to reduce nitrogen going into fresh water supplies such as lakes and rivers as it is to reduce phosphorus.

    While it is true that excess phosphorus must not wind up in the lakes, and that the phosphorus load can increase cyanobacterial blooms, a failure to simultaneously reduce the nitrogen load will doom the whole process to failure. The excess nitrogen load in freshwater will ultimately make the blooms more toxic, and lead to visible degradation downstream as the freshwater approaches the sea.

    It is a highly complicated process on one hand, but it doesn’t need to be at the homeowner level. EVERYONE needs to be discouraged from using high nitrogen fertilizer products if they care about the future of fresh and salt water bodies.

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