The Lawn Phosphorus Firestorm: The Flames Are Warming
New Laws Wrongfully Restrict Organic Fertilizers
The coming year is shaping up as a major battleground and your lawn may be caught in the crosshairs of a fight that stretches from Maine to Washington state.
The issue is phosphorus, denoted by the letter P and the number 15 on the Periodic Table of Elements that hung in your high school science class. It’s also the middle number on your lawn fertilizer bag and, if a growing number of lawmakers continue to get their way, that number will soon read zero (0) if it doesn’t already.
“Legislators always seem to like to take things to logical extremes, which results in illogical legislation,” said Paul Sachs today by phone. He has been selling organic fertilizers for longer than just about anyone else in the nation as owner of North Country Organics in Bradford, Vt.
When Great Lakes states like Wisconsin, Michigan and Minnesota first began looking at bans on phosphorus in lawn fertilizers a decade ago, environmentalists like us touted the movement as fundamentally positive. Phosphorus that runs off into fresh water supplies can produce massive algae blooms that suck oxygen out of lakes, rivers or streams and leave them as a eutrified, putrid mess. Homeowners and some lawn care operators, who tend to think more is better when it comes to the application of fertilizers and weed controls, were being fingered as the culprits.
And when professor John Lehman’s research started flowing out of Michigan, showing that the lawn phosphorus ban in that state was in fact reducing phosphorus in the lake, his findings gave massive amounts of fuel to the discussion of phosphorus bans. Now, virtually every state from Maine to Virginia on the Eastern Seaboard has some sort of lawn phosphorus legislation already in place or percolating.
So far, so good, most of us thought . . . except for the one massive consequence that Paul Sachs predicted way back in 2007: many organic fertilizers were going to be legislated out of business. That’s because it’s easy to remove phosphorus from the synthetic chemical fertilizers sold by Scotts Miracle Gro, Bayer and others; meanwhile it’s virtually impossible to remove all the phosphorus from many natural organic fertilizers derived from animals and plants.
As one fertilizer manufacturer said in this SafeLawns interview last year, these phosphorus bans “will effectively kill the organic fertilizer industry.”
ALL PHOSPHORUS IS NOT CREATED EQUALLY
As one of the big three macronutrients — nitrogen and potassium are the others — phosphorus is essential for the general health and vigor of all plants. Among the benefits it provides are stimulated root development, increased stalk and stem strength, overall vigor and increased resistance to plant diseases.
Without phosphorus, in other words, we wouldn’t have lawns as we know them. Any grass that did grow would be wispy and of pale, pinkish green in color. Lawns wouldn’t have the ability to make it through any drought stress of summer or long, harsh winters, either, without phosphorus — so it’s traditionally been added to our fertilizer mixes in somewhere between one-tenth and equal measures to the nitrogen that’s included in the bag.
Proponents of the bans state that most soils in the U.S. already have enough phosphorus in place for established lawns and that the only time you need to apply phosphorus to lawns is during overseeding or repairing bare areas. In fact, in the 11 states where phosphorus is legislated, all of them allow for phosphorus to be put down when overseeding.
But can lawns really thrive without any additional phosphorus being added? If clippings are left on the lawn, and the lawn is otherwise treated organically so the soil is alive with microorganisms, the answer is most always yes. Mother Nature has the ability to “mineralize” phosphorus from leaves, clippings and other organic matter and turn it into a form plants can use (see chart, at left).
But Paul Sachs says he has customers call him all the time saying their lawn is turning the wrong color ever since they stopped using phosphorus in their fertilizers. Maybe the mineralization process isn’t functioning well, or maybe the homeowners are bagging their clippings.
“The edges of the blades of grass will turn red in response to a phosphorus deficiency,” he said. “The result of a prolonged period without phosphorus will be weaker stands of grass, which ultimately will lead to more erosion of top soil and even more of a nutrient load in the lakes after all.
“The legislators, in other words, will have worsened the very problem that they’re trying to correct.”
Some of those legislators in favor of no lawn phosphorus frustrate organic lawn fertilizer manufacturers in one other significant way: by not differentiating between organically derived sources such as composts and plant and animal fertilizers, or the chemical products that include synthetic forms of phosphorus. The synthetic phosphorus has been treated to be more water soluble, which automatically makes it more prone to leaching during and after a heavy rain event. Within organic fertilizers, the phosphorus is usually bound tightly to iron or aluminum and won’t release and leach readily.
Attorney Tom Crawford has been fighting this battle on behalf of his company, Milorganite, for more years than he likes to count.
“Legislators just don’t want to hear about these differences (in phosphorus) because it confuses them,” he said. “And then there are the lobbyists for the chemical industry who will testify with a straight face that all phosphorus is created equally. It’s a bold-faced lie, of course, but who’s the legislator going to believe?”
The result has been a mishmash of laws. In Illinois, lawn care professionals can’t apply phosphorus to lawns without a soil test that proves the customer needs it — but the rules don’t stop the customer from applying the phosphorus themselves. Four other states, New York, Maryland, Washington and Vermont, effectively make no distinction between organic and synthetic fertilizers in their bans, according to Crawford. On the other hand, New Jersey, Virginia, Wisconsin, Michigan and Minnesota all exempt organic fertilizers from their bans — primarily because Crawford personally fought long and hard to make those state officials understand the differences. He has a scientific study from Florida that shows Milorganite — made from composted human waste — is seven times less likely to leach through the soil than synthetic phosphorus. That same study shows that phosphorus bound in compost is also far less prone to leaching than synthetic sources.
That data alone ought to be enough to persuade lawmakers, but as Crawford approaches his retirement next year, he echoes Paul Sachs’ sentiments about illogical legislation.
“After a while, you just shake your head,” he said earlier today. “You just hope that Pennsylvania, which will be next in line with a phosphorus ban, will follow New Jersey and not New York or Maryland.”
The end of Crawford’s career is significant, not just for Milorganite and other biosolids fertilizers companies, but for the organic fertilizer industry as a whole. Few other organic companies can afford to maintain full-time staff attorneys to assure their products’ rightful shelf space. It’s not inconceivable that other states could follow New York’s lead without someone like Crawford to stand up to bad legislation.
THE REALITY ON THE GROUND
Much of the battle is being fought at retail centers where bags full of lawn fertilizer containing phosphorus will either be illegal to sell, or will carry a stern warning label. Since many of the newest laws in New York, New Jersey, Maryland and elsewhere really don’t take full effect until 2012, the entire organic fertilizer industry seems to be holding its collective breath.
“I have no idea how they think they’ll implement this, much less enforce it,” said Sachs, who said his company has seen no drop in sales — yet — related to the phosphorus laws that are hitting like dominos across the Northeast.
A quick Internet search didn’t unearth any prosecuted cases based on the phosphorus laws and reason dictates that the no-phosphorus craze in the U.S. will probably police itself, much like the no pesticide laws have done in Canada. In other words most people will try to follow the law; a certain percentage won’t hear about the law and a few others probably won’t abide it if they do hear.
The bottom line is that reduction of phosphorus in lawn fertilizers is a great intention. Responsible states like New Jersey, that quantify how much can be put down — without eliminating P entirely — have it right. The old days of putting 10-10-10 chemical fertilizer everywhere need to end immediately.
The sad irony of all this, though, is that if everyone simply tended their lawns organically, and let the soil organisms do the work of cycling the natural phosphorus through the system, then green lawns and clear water could easily co-exist. That organic fertilizers are being lumped with their chemical counterparts is an ignorant travesty that’s not supported by sound science.
In the end, our advice is two-fold for both the companies that call us looking for updates and the homeowners who want to know how to be upstanding citizens within the law. First, keep paying attention to these phosphorus bans and make sure organic products like compost, fish meal, chicken manure and alfalfa meal get the exemptions within the laws.
And, second? Overseed your lawn every fall. You should do that anyway . . . and within the letter of law in these phosphorus bans, you’ll be allowed to apply fertilizer containing phosphorus at that time.