‘Organic-Based’ Products Are Rarely Organic
NOTE: This is an update of a position paper I first published in 2007.
As I’ve traveled around the nation on our organization SafeLawns.org, I’ve sensed a tremendous amount of confusion about organic products. “What’s really organic, and what isn’t?” people ask. Just yesterday, on the phone with Consumers Digest magazine, a reporter was asking about the proliferation of seemingly safe, natural products — and wondering how much of the messaging was “greenwashing” the labels to deceive consumers.
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.
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. 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.
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.
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.