Are you an avid food label reader? How about reading the labels of your favorite vegetable fertilizer? You should be. I am avid organic gardener but was shocked that The National Organic Program, which regulates organic farming, permits certain ingredients in organic fertilizers. Listed below are the ingredients in question.
The following ingredients may appear in some of your organic fertilizers:
- Chicken or Turkey Feathers
- Dehydrated Manure
- Chicken Litter
- Bone Meal
- Fish Meal
Local Big Box Store Organic Fertilizers
Let’s head to your local big box store to find these ingredients.
You are looking for a product for your organic garden. You realize just because the products says it is organic, that means nothing. Soil is organic. Arsenic is organic.
Organic is a loosely thrown around term. (I see you are nodding your head in agreement.)
To be on the safe side, you always look for an OMRI (Organic Material Review Institute) seal of approval.
OMRI is a private company that labels products that contain ingredients permitted under the National Organic Program (NOP.) If a product has a OMRI seal, then it is approved for organic farming.
So you go to your local big box store and perhaps you see Scotts Miracle Grow Nature Care Bag. It states on the bag that the fertilizer is “natural and organic vegetable, fruit, and flower food.” In addition, it has an OMRI seal.
Looks good. Right?
Here are the active ingredients:
Derived from: feather meal, fish meal, blood meal, wheat middlings, meat and bone meal, sulfate of potash, and calcium carbonate.
To boot it has a California Proposition 65 warning on the bag.
“WARNING: This product contains chemicals known to the State of California to cause cancer and/or birth defects or other reproductive harm.”
So you walk out the store happy since you found an OMRI approved product. (You might have missed the Prop 65 warning.)
OMRI Seal Isn’t Enough (in My Opinion)
So why wouldn’t the OMRI seal be the holy grail for organic gardening? Under NOP standards, animal products are generally approved ingredients for organic gardening. Even raw manure if added to crops within a certain time frame. (See CFR 205.203.)
But here is the problem.
It doesn’t matter if the animals that produced the waste ate GMO grains or if the crops they ate were sprayed with pesticides such as Round-up. So the dehydrated manure in your garden products could have come from a conventional industrial cow or chicken farm.
Or your carrots could have been grown in conventional cow manure or chicken litter. (Fresh manure or litter has to be applied a certain time period before crops are planted.)
Why do farmers use manure? According to the University of Minnesota Extension, fresh manure has much more nitrogen in it than composted manure. On the other hand, composted manure contributes more to the organic matter content of the soil. Both benefit how food grows.
Did I Read the Standards Incorrectly?
When I read the NOP standards for the first time, I thought I interpreted the standards incorrectly. It just didn’t make sense how NOP would permit industrial dehydrated or fresh cow manure and other animal products in organic farming.
In 2014, I contacted Peggy Mairs, the Executive Director of OMRI for clarification. She was extremely helpful and replied via email:
“Although genetically engineered ingredients are not allowed in the production of organic food, there are currently no regulations regarding the source of manure or plant materials used as ingredients in compost for organic production…
In addition, sufficient quantities of manure from organic animals do not exist at this time to fulfill the compost needs of organic producers. Using manure from non-organic farms helps to reduce the negative environmental impact created by those operations. As organic grows, there may be enough manure in the future from certified organic animals so that a requirement of “organic” manure might be implemented.
OMRI recently began reviewing products to the Canadian organic standards. In Canada, it is preferred that manure and other compost ingredients come from an organic farm.” (Bolding added for emphasis.)
Basically in a nutshell, industrial farmed animal products can be used in organic farming and gardening products.
Isn’t that a double standard? Conventional meat isn’t organic but their poop can be use in organic farming?
Oh Did I Mention Arsenic in Chicken Litter?
Worse yet, the liter from non-organic raised chickens may contain arsenic, which is acceptable under certain conditions under the NOP standards. Remember, chicken litter could be in your organic fertilizers. (Arsenic is an additive in the feed of conventionally raised broilers.)
Under the NOP standards,
“The producer must manage plant and animal materials to maintain or improve soil organic matter content in a manner that does not contribute to contamination of crops, soil, or water by plant nutrients, pathogenic organisms, heavy metals, or residues of prohibited substances.” (Bolding added.)”
Unfortunately, there aren’t national guidelines as to how much heavy metals are permitted in the soil. Maximum acceptable arsenic levels in soil vary from state to state.
Oddly, arsenic is listed on NOP’s National List of Prohibited Non-synthetic ingredients.
Worse yet, composted chicken litter will have more arsenic in it than fresh litter. (By the way, store bought garden products would contain composted chicken litter.)
In fact according to Barbara Bellows from A National Sustainable Agriculture Assistance Program (ALTTRA,) “… poultry litter that contains 30 ppm arsenic before composting will contain 50 to 150 ppm arsenic after composting.”
Plants uptake arsenic through their roots. Bellows indicates that root vegetables such as carrots and potatoes would accumulate the highest level of arsenic. (Certain plants such as rice uptake arsenic as well.)
Did I Mention Antibiotics too?
If arsenic isn’t bad enough, a 2012 study by Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and Arizona State University found that certain antibiotics banned by the FDA in 2005 are still in use. The study tested feather meal samples.
Remember, feather meal might be in your organic fertilizers.
It’s Getting Uglier. The Round-Up Connection:
So I dug even deeper. (Sorry about the pun.) I wondered what effect would GMO fed animal manure and chicken feathers have on the soil and the crops?
I reached out to Dr. Thierry Vrain. PhD soil biologist who formerly worked as an agriculture researcher for the Canadian government. He explained that the science of genetically modified organisms isn’t the problem. The problem is Glyphosate (Round-up) which is applied to the crops which are in turn eaten by the animals.
He writes via email:
“There is no such thing as a GMO substance or a residue of GMO, but there is a pesticide, a chemical that is sprayed on GMO crops. That is where the toxicity lies. Any food or other processed product from GMO (manure from animals fed engineered grain) contain residue of the herbicide Glyphosate.
I append a few references if you want to look at them. It is a pesticide story, not much else. The industry has been very smart at hiding the pesticide story and generating this GMO controversy and debate.”
He further replied:
“Glyphosate is antibiotic in the soil and in your microbiome and an endocrine disruptor at 1 ppm.” (Bolding addeded.)
I have to repeat what he said again since I was shocked. Round-up is an endrocrine disruptor. So why would it be allowed to touch my organic crops?
Vrain concluded that feathers and manure containing the pesticide residue shouldn’t be approved for organic gardening.
I totally agree.
Doesn’t Round-Up Just Decompose?
So, I took a step back since at this point I was fuming. Am I fussing about nothing? How long does it take for round-up to decompose?
According to Professor Don Huber, Professor Emeritus, Purdue University,
“Since 90-97 % of the glyphosate in the feed and water supposedly pass through the animal in the urine and feces, if the turkeys are fed glyphosate containing feed, the manure will have glyphosate in it. The amount will depend on the amount in their feed and water. If they are fed GMO distillers grain type products, the levels are even higher usually. I have heard of figures of 0.8 pounds glyphosate per ton poultry manure in one situation, but it is usually much, much lower. Since glyphosate isn’t necessarily broken down in the composting process – and when it is it is to AMPA which is just as chronically toxic, it becomes very persistent and accumulates in the environment. It also bioaccumulates in spleen, muscle, liver, kidney, and bones of animals.”
(AMPA is aminomethylphosphonic acid.)
So you guess is as good as mine when round-up decomposes. Bottom line. Round-up isn’t eliminated through composting.
And Forget Bone Meal.
Did you see Professor Huber’s statement about bio-accumulation of glyphosate in animal bones? How many of us buy bone meal or bone blood for our gardens?
I am no longer buying either product.
Someone Has to Know When Round-up Decomposes.
It seemed every expert I spoke to reacted the same way. No one knows when round-up decomposes.
Professor Dharni Vasudevanfrom Bowdoin College stated when asked the same question via email:
“Again, this will vary depending on the conditions of the soil and the microbial community and type of pesticide/antibiotic. So there is no way to estimate “time to degrade” with any certainty.”
Basically, who knows?
What About Fish Products?
Given the length of this article, I will talk about fish emulsions in a different article. In the meantime, ask your fish emulsion manufacturer for test results for heavy metal contamination.
Be a concerned gardening consumer. Treat your garden like your body. If you only eat organic foods, then why add industrial animal by-products to your garden?
If your gardening products contain animal by-products, ask the manufacturer where their ingredients are sourced from.
In the coming weeks, I will be working on a list of products that are acceptable fertilizers. I welcome suggestions in the comments below.
Join the Conversation:
Which garden products do you use?
- Organic Mechanic Potting Soil: A Peat Free Alternative That Plants Love
- Arsenic in Rice. How Many Studies Do We Need for the FDA to Act?
- Banish Crabgrass with Corn Gluten: Three Times a Charm
- Say No to Round-Up Weed Killer. Jury Still Out on Safer, Burnout II.
- Arsenic in Organic Brown Rice Syrup. Who’s to Blame?
We’re of the same mind set. Check out Soil Science Products. Let us know if you’d like to join us in the holistic gardening paradigm.
Linda, I am wondering if you are the same person that the Organic Consumer Association was going to introduce me to? I was talking to them in 2014 and they told me about another person equally upset. Are your product OMRI approved?
PS Love your site. Please share my article on your social media.
Lindsey Dietz says
Great info! Beyond horse manure, chicken poop, and compost, I’ve never used a store-bought fertilizer. Crazy that even the “organic” ones aren’t always great!
Lindsey, it isn’t just store bought. Any time you use manure, you have to know your sources and what they eat.
Raia Todd says
Interesting. I’ve never bought or used fertilizer before, other than from my backyard chickens, but I will keep my eyes open if I do!
Emily @ Recipes to Nourish says
Oh boy, this is really good to know. I had NO idea about this, but I’m not surprised. Thanks for letting us know, now I know what to look for.
Emily, you should have seen the first time I put something on my plant to discover it had turkey poop in it. I was floored. Anna
L. Gawinski says
Great article, so much info. Thanks for doing all the hard work of researching it all.
Excellent and informative article Anna. Thank you so much for researching this vital information. Finding out what glyphosates degrade into is quite scary. I’ve been “digging” into this matter in recent weeks because we have chickens, and the one compost pile of their litter, when we didn’t have them on pasture/organic feed, mutated the leaves and growth of some garden plants. We learned that if feed grains are sprayed with the glyphosates or various chemicals, sure enough the manure will mutate any broad-leaf plants. A simple test we found for assessing compost or manure purity, is to plant a pea or bean plant. If the plant emerges stunted with odd leaf deformity, bingo, you got contamination. The long-acting herbicides are really terrible. We’ve since moved on to vermiculture for soil nutrients, so far, so good.
My Grandma love to plant small saplings, I will surely share this information with her.
Hello, I am a bovine and goat farmer, because the feces are many and I already thought of selling bad I have no ideas how to sell and where, would you have any idea that could help me?
Because they are organic fertilizers …… Hugs!
Jimmy Videle says
Great article and interesting research. We are veganic growers. Organic farmers that do not use any animal by-products for our greenhouse plants or in our fields. We are certified organic with Ecocert and Certified veganic with Veganic organic. We use primarily Veganic compost made from chipped branch wood, vegetable waste and green hay (grass). We use organic soybean meal and organic alfalfa meal (both from Down-to Earth) for the plants in the greenhouse. We make liquid fertilizers from the plants stinging nettle and russian comfrey.
We also use a combination of cover crops to add fertility to the soils, like buckwheat and oats as well as companion planting of clover with heavy feeding crops like brassicas and corn.
Here are a couple of links on vegan organic agriculture and gardening:
Good luck in your research and steering people away from dangerous animal by-products on our veggies!
I started using comfrey as well. I will be making compost tea this summer. What do you use as nitrogen? Anna