This past winter news broke that something like a third of USDA certified organic farms in California had been using synthetic liquid nitrogen fertilizers in violation of organic rules. The fault lay principally with a large fertilizer manufacturer that was deceitfully using conventional chemical sources to manufacture its fertilizers more cheaply. It was a case of outright fraud that apparently went on for seven years (including almost three years after officials were first tipped off), affecting a huge segment of the USDA certified organic system. Normally, according to the regulations of the USDA organic program, land that has had chemical fertilizers applied to it cannot be used for the next three years for organic production, but with whole corporate networks of farms compromised (like salad mix giant Earthbound Farms), organic certifiers announced that those organic rules would not be enforced. Organic regulators assured consumers that synthetic fertilizers are perfectly safe.
That episode raises lots of interesting questions. It's particularly telling that so many organic farms in California depend on one-for-one substitutes for conventional fertilizers, substitutes that farm workers were unable to distinguish from conventional chemical fertilizer, and that are used exactly the same way with the same results. Are "organic" fertilizers that big companies process in big factories and that arrive in a bottle or a tanker truck, apart from massive frauds, otherwise not organically suspect? What is the ecological cost of such fertilizers? Why are California organic farms so dependent on factory fertilizers? What about the business model of these farms makes traditional, identifiably organic fertilizer sources (like leguminous cover crops) impractical? Why were organic certifiers so eager to secure the status quo following these abuses? How trustworthy can the USDA organic system be -- even when it comes to meeting very limited, legalistic standards -- when it's so far away, so convoluted, and so heavily industrialized? We see the whole episode as a further indication that the marriage between organic agriculture and supermarket-scale agriculture is shaky and ultimately unsustainable.