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NOP tightens up organic fertilizer regulations

In the wake of last month's frenzied activity to correct problems with phony organic fertilizers, the U.S. Department of Agriculture's National Organic Program has issued a new set of certification regulations for fertilizers and other crop aids.

But the new regs come with a price. "While these higher standards may increase the cost and reduce the availability of fertilizers to organic farmers, we believe this is a necessary step to safeguard integrity, which will provide critical stability to the organic industry in the long term," said David DeCou, executive director of the Organic Materials Review Institute, an organic certifier based in Portland, Ore., in a statement.

In a Feb. 20 memo, NOP Acting Director Barbara Robinson warned that "the NOP cautions vigilance in the approval of all liquid fertilizer products." The memo was in response to a series of investigations of California liquid fertilizer manufacturers that resulted in a raid of Port Organic Products by federal agents. Port Organics' fertilizers, which have now been disallowed by the NOP, are allegedly spiked with synthetic nitrogen, which is a no-no under national organics regulations.

California Liquid Fertilizer was suspected of similar violations and pulled its products from the market two years ago. The two companies supplied the majority of liquid fertilizers used on California's organic farms, resulting in recent harvests that weren't truly organic under NOP regulations.

The new NOP rules, which take effect Oct. 1, require all high-nitrogen organic liquid fertilizer (the type of fertilizer that is most easily doctored with synthetic materials) to be reviewed by a third-party inspector, which will then supply its findings to organic certifying agents.

Currently, most organic certifiers rely on two NOP-approved nonprofits—OMRI and the Washington State Department of Agriculture—to certify fertilizers and other crop aids. OMRI, which approved Port Organic and California Liquid Fertilizer products, relies mainly on "desk audits"—analyzing product composition information provided by the manufacturer and then verifying it against reference information and the company's extensive database to see if the product claims match the ingredients and analysis—rather than site visits for its certification process, said OMRI Marketing Director Miguel Guerrero.

That will change under the new NOP regulations, which call for audits and inspections of not only fertilizers, but other materials where "synthetic substitutes are readily available and have the potential to be concealed," Robinson said.

"This notice from the NOP reinforces OMRI's current course of strengthening certification procedures to confront the increasing incentive for companies to bend or break the rules," DeCou said.

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