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National Organic Program
Protecting Organic Crops from Synthetic Fertilizers  

Why are fertilizers used in crop production?

Plants require a variety of nutrients in order to grow. Farmers may use crop rotation, cover crops, compost, manure, and fertilizers to provide required plant nutrients, including nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, sulfur, and other trace elements.

Which fertilizers are allowed in organic crop production?

The Organic Foods Production Act of 1990 prohibits the use of synthetic fertilizers—including ammonia salts and urea—in organic crop production. Organic farmers typically use natural fertilizers as needed, including chicken litter, compost, and fish meal. Sustainable management practices, such as crop rotation and cover crops, reduce the need for fertilizers and other inputs on organic farms. For example, a farmer may plant a crop that needs a lot of nitrogen (such as corn) on a field one season, and then a nitrogen-fixing crop (such as alfalfa) the next to replenish the soil.

How are fertilizers overseen?

All fertilizers. Unlike pesticides, which are regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency, fertilizer labeling is not overseen by a single Federal agency. Instead, each U.S. State has its own fertilizer regulatory program that registers allowed fertilizers. The registration process ensures that farmers get fertilizers that meet the labeled specifications (such as 5 percent nitrogen).The Association of American Plant Food Control Officials provides a forum for consistent definitions and enforcement of fertilizers by State regulatory agencies.

Fertilizers for Organic Farms. Certifying agents are responsible for evaluating all substances proposed for use on an organic farm, including fertilizers. Before these substances can be used, the certifying agent must verify that the fertilizer doesn’t contain prohibited substances (such as ammonia salts or sewage sludge). The Organic Materials Review Institute (OMRI) and many organic certifying agents have review programs that evaluate substances, including fertilizers, to determine if they comply with the organic regulations and can be used on organic farms.

What about cases of fertilizer fraud in organic crops?

There have been two major cases of fraud related to liquid organic fertilizer from companies based in California. In both cases, an individual committed mail fraud by submitting false applications and documentation during the fertilizer review process. The falsified documents stated that the fertilizers were made with approved substances (such as fish meal) and the fertilizers were approved for organic use. Organic farmers then paid premium prices for these fertilizers.

Auditors and investigators later confirmed that Kenneth Nelson, Jr. (of Port Organic Products) and Peter Townsley (of California Liquid Fertilizer) had spiked their “organic-approved” fertilizers with prohibited synthetic nitrogen sources, such as ammonia salts and urea. Mr. Nelson is currently serving a 6.5-year prison term and was ordered to pay $9 million for fraud committed through 2009. Mr. Townsley is serving a 1-year prison term and was ordered to pay a $125,000 fine for fraud committed through 2006.

Were products treated with fraudulent fertilizer affected?

Unlike pesticides, fertilizers don’t leave residues on crops. Therefore, it can be very difficult—if not impossible—to determine if a crop was treated with a synthetic fertilizer through field or laboratory testing. Instead, auditors uncovered the fertilizer fraud by observing growing practices and reviewing records. Although fertilizers with synthetic nitrogen sources aren’t allowed in organic crop production, the affected products posed no threat to the health of consumers or the environment.

How did USDA address affected products?

The USDA organic regulations cover organic products throughout their lifecycle. These standards specify to farmers which seeds and substances they can use, and how they must support the environment through sustainable practices. Generally, if organic farmers use a prohibited substance—such as synthetic fertilizer—they can’t sell their crops as organic for three years. Farmers that intentionally use prohibited substances have their certification revoked and are ineligible to get recertified for five years. Farmers that mistakenly use prohibited substances are suspended for three years.

In both of the above cases—whether the use of the prohibited substance was intentional or unintentional—the farmer was responsible. The farmer’s use of the fertilizers that were fraudulently sold as organically approved, however, poses a different scenario. These fertilizers were reviewed by organic sector’s substance review organizations and were approved for organic use (based on falsified information). Organic farmers selected and paid premium prices for the fertilizers. And, as required as part of the organic certification process, each farmer’s certifying agent approved all substances—including organic fertilizers—used on the farm. Adulterated fertilizers typically look the same and are virtually indistinguishable in laboratory tests. Therefore, neither the farmer nor the certifying agent could have been reasonably expected to know the fertilizer had been adulterated and represented as organic.

The USDA took immediate action once it determined that the fertilizers were fraudulently approved for organic use, notifying certifying agents and organic farmers to stop using these products. In addition, USDA established new inspection and approval procedures to ensure all fertilizers used in organic production would comply with USDA organic regulations. USDA did not penalize organic farmers who, while meeting a rigorous array of requirements, were defrauded by the fertilizer manufacturers. It would be unfair to suspend or revoke a farmer’s organic certificate because he or she was defrauded by an unscrupulous fertilizer manufacturer. Additionally, due to the testing limitations, it would have been virtually impossible to detect which products were affected. Also, since most affected products would already have been consumed, USDA instead focused on bringing the defrauders to justice and preventing future fraud in the organic sector.

What steps have been taken to prevent future fertilizer fraud in organic crops?

USDA National Organic Program. The National Organic Program now requires additional scrutiny for all organic-approved liquid fertilizers containing more than 3 percent nitrogen. Before a farmer can use these fertilizers, OMRI or a certifying agent must determine if they are organic-approved. OMRI or the certifying agent must analyze each fertilizer ingredient, fully test the finished fertilizer, and inspect the manufacturing facility. Once approved, OMRI or the certifying agent must inspect the manufacturing facility at least two times per year (one scheduled and one unannounced) and audit the manufacturer to ensure that all nitrogen comes from natural sources.

California. California implemented a new law, AB 856, which requires the registration, inspection, and review of all organic input materials marketed in the state for use in organic agriculture.

This additional scrutiny and oversight sends the message that fraudulent fertilizers won’t be tolerated in the organic sector. USDA understands that consumers pay premium prices for organic products and deserve products that meet all organic requirements, such as protecting natural resources, conserving biodiversity, and using only approved substances.

In 2009, USDA announced that organic agriculture was in the “age of enforcement,” to better protect the integrity of organic products. Farmers that violate these regulations are subject to financial penalties up to $11,000 per violation and loss of their organic certificate. Since 2009, audits and investigations have led USDA to issue 38 civil penalties totaling more than $525,000.

We invite you to report suspected violations to the National Organic Program’s compliance and enforcement team at and appreciate your help in protecting organic integrity.



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  Last Modified Date: 05/06/2014