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Scotts Pledges to Remove Phosphorus From Lawn Fertilizer

The Move is Eyed Suspiciously by Organic Fertilizer Companies

After arguing for much of the past two decades that lawn fertilizer had little to do with excess phosphorus in the watershed, the Scotts Miracle-Gro company announced Monday it will succumb to increasing public pressure and remove phosphorus from all its U.S. lawn fertilizers by 2012.

Miracle-Gro founder Horace Hagedorn lived by the marketing credo that “public perception is reality,” and his son, Jim, could clearly see the writing on the wall. With legislation calling for phosphorus limits either already enacted or pending in at least a dozen states, the growing perception was that phosphorus in lawn fertilizers was ruining bodies of fresh water.

Jim Hagedorn, now chairman, chief executive officer and the leading shareholder of the company with $3.3 billion in annual sales, told media outlets today that he deliberately chose to make the announcement on World Water Day — so that his company is painted as a good friend of the planet.

“What better time to announce these initiatives than on World Water Day, and also at the start of another lawn and garden season,” Hagedorn said in a statement.

In other words, the company wants to create the perception that it has consumers’ best interests at heart — just as those consumers head out to spend their spring dollars.

Scotts also trotted out warm and fuzzy statements from all sorts of environmentalists who applauded the move. Joel Brammeier, president and chief executive officer of the Alliance for the Great Lakes, said,
“Today’s choices by Scotts Miracle-Gro are a smart commitment to putting business to work for clean water.”

The National Wildlife Federation, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, and the Keep America Beautiful campaign were also quoted on the Scotts web site, including KAB President and CEO Matt McKenna chiming: “We have seen repeatedly throughout our more than 40-year history that education is one of the most effective approaches to protecting the environment. Storm water education programs have been gaining popularity throughout the U.S. Given our strong network of more than 600 local affiliate organizations, we are proud that we’ll be able to bring ScottsMiracle-Gro’s commitment to education to communities across the country.”

All those affiliate organizations represent a lot of potential Scotts customers who might not have thought kindly of the company in the past.

THE BIG BUT . . .

As you might guess, if you’ve read this far, the organic community is eyeing this move by Scotts with a huge level of skepticism. We’ve all sat through testimony from red-faced Scotts representatives who stated emphatically that the phosphorus in lawn fertilizer wasn’t responsible for water degradation — that the real cause was stuff like tree leaves, goose poop, pollen and soil erosion. Taking phosphorus out of lawn fertilizers, argued Scotts, will weaken lawns, make them less lush, and therefore cause even more soil erosion into the watershed.

“There are a number of sources that affect the amount or phosphorus in our waterways,” said Chris Wible, the “sustainability director” for Scott Miracle-Gro said in a published report just last December.
“There isn’t an overuse of fertilizers in urban environments . . . Dense ground cover (i.e. healthy turfgrass) is good for the urban environment. It reduces sediment flows and lateral flows, increases filtration and aids in groundwater recharge.”

Given that Scotts was arguing so strongly against the phosphorus bands so recently, you have to wonder what has made them change their strategies and tactics. Many organic fertilizer manufacturers fear that Scotts’ end game in this move is to put organic fertilizers out of business — since phosphorus can’t readily be removed from organic fertilizer sources such as chicken manure, alfalfa, fish meal and other supplies.

I was on the phone with a national reporter today and when I tried to explain that organic phosphorus sources were not as prone to leaching as synthetic phosphorus, he clearly didn’t get it. He didn’t even want to hear it. I’m certain the average consumer feels the same way.

The average shopper — who will now be educated by the Keep America Beautiful program and other new Scotts partners that phosphorus in lawn fertilizer is bad — will look at the 2 percent phosphorus in Milorganite, Espoma and other organic products and likely conclude that they should buy Scotts Turfbuilder instead. That product, it should be noted, includes 32 percent nitrogen — about three times more than should be in the bag — but zero phosphorus.

For now, at least, Scotts is keeping phosphorus in its starter fertilizers and organic products. Both of those moves make sense, both from an agronomic and functional standpoint.

When push comes to shove, though, the company would likely sacrifice all of its organic fertilizer sales in a heartbeat if it meant it could put all of its pesky organic competitors out of business in the process.

Like his Daddy, Jim Hagedorn has his own business mantra: “Business is war.” Today, despite all outward appearances, you can be certain that this move was nothing more than another shot aimed at winning that war.

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.

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