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December 31, 2008

What's a Little Ammonium Sulfate Between Friends?

As if we need another reminder of the extent to which our food system (like our politics, our financial system and our love lives) rely as much on good behavior as on regulation. The Sac Bee (via the Daily Green) details a scandal involving the company California Liquid Fertilizer, organic certification, a bit of ammonium sulfate fertilizer and a lot of lettuce. The company in question makes organic liquid fertilizer (in California, natch). Its product worked really really well. Or rather not well enough, since they felt the need to spike it with ammonium sulfate:

The company's fertilizer was effective, inexpensive and approved by organic regulators. By 2006, it held as much as a third of the market in California.

But a state investigation caught the Salinas-area company spiking its product with ammonium sulfate, a synthetic fertilizer banned from organic farms.

As a result, some of California's 2006 harvest of organic fruits, nuts and vegetables - including crops from giants like Earthbound Farm - wasn't really organic.

Ah, well. Other than the fact that regulators knew for years that the company was spiking the punch going back almost a decade and the fact that the company never faced any penalties or litigation for its violations of both the spirit and the letter of the law (though nor did farms that used the product lose their certification), what caught my eye was the Bee's observation that there is a bit of an arms race going on among organic farms in terms of fertilizer.

As organic farms scale up, they need to find better and better ways to replenish their soil's nitrogen content since without somehow adding nitrogen back in to agricultural lands, the soil eventually becomes effectively sterile. It can be done organically via cover crops like beans, manure or liquid fertilizer made from fish parts or chicken feathers. But concentrating nitrogen from natural sources is much harder than chemically pulling it out of the atmosphere (which is a step in the ammonium sulfate production process).

Meanwhile, ammonia products are the conventional farmer's ne plus ultra of fertilizers - but require huge petrochemical and energy use and are one of the main elements of conventional farming that organic farming defines itself in opposition to. So we've got irony as far as the eye can see. Along with a warning flag. Was this product embraced because it led to a marginal, but crucial, increase in yields at large-scale organic farms? Or was it considered a significant innovation in organic fertilizer that allowed organic farms to make a leap that wouldn't have otherwise happened? Is there an iceberg lurking about of which we have found the tip?

The indications aren't good. The article quotes an executive from a lab that tests fertilizers who "found that a number of fertilizers sold to organic farmers show signs of being from synthetic sources." Not to mention the fact that the products are so heavily processed, despite their "natural" sources, that it can be difficult to easily determine if something came from synthetic sources or not.

While I very much hope that we can file this in the "isolated case of a product whose performance turned out to be too good to be true" department, it's looking like we may need to instead file it in the "organic yields are too low without conventional fertilizer" department. I hate that department and try never to go there.

Photo by Michael Davidson used under a CC license

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