What is the difference between plant food or fertilizer labels that read “Organic” and “All Natural?”
Derek, Calera, Alabama
That is a good question and one that can be a bit confusing, so I’m going to address “Organic” in this post, “All Natural” in the next posting and “Certified Organic” in yet a third blog post. Let’s look at “organic” first. It should be understood, as your question implies that there is definitely a difference between “all natural” and “organic” when it comes to plant food or fertilizers – and especially food products. The terms are not interchangeable.
Organic fertilizers come from all-natural sources such as selected animal manures, mined rock powders, blood meal, feather meal, cottonseed meal, alfalfa meal, bone meal, fish extracts and seaweed by-products. Simply put, organic fertilizers are derived from animal or vegetable matter. Beyond that simple definition, though, things get a bit confusing.
The federal government has attempted to implement regulations on what it means to be “organic,” primarily with regard to the production of food and fiber. A fertilizer company could place the word “organic” on most any fertilizer product it chooses to, and some do. After all, as we become a much “greener” society, these types of words have great power in the marketplace. In these cases the word really has little meaning at all, and may only refer to the fact that there is organic — or carbon-based — content, without any verification that all of the ingredients meet specifications set out by the National Organic Program (see below). Therefore, the burden of proof and the task of sorting out these claims is on the government and the consumer.
Second — and this is where it gets even more confusing — is determining just how organic is “organic.” For example, a company could blend cow manure with water and claim it is organic and it would be. But the products produced by that fertilizer still may not qualify under the guidelines of the National Organic Program (NOP) instituted by the federal government. This is where the organization known as the Organic Materials Research Institute (OMRI) comes in. OMRI is an independent, non-profit institution which serves as the gatekeeper for products which meet the requirements of the NOP. Input products cannot be labeled “certified organic“: rather, OMRI uses the term “OMRI Listed” for products which may be used in the production of organic food and fiber, under the guidelines of the NOP. Furthermore, the term “certified organic” can only legally apply to food or fiber products.
Use of the term “organic” on fertilizers is generally not regulated. Some of the products listed by OMRI are not, in fact, organic. Due to a provision in their guidelines for becoming “OMRI Listed,” a non-organic product can be a listed product if no close, non-synthetic substitute exists.
Let’s try to summarize.
- Products that claim to be organic may or may not be.
- OMRI lists certain “raw materials” which may be used in the production of organic finished goods, but they do not technically certify the input products. All they do is say this material will not disqualify the end product from participation in the National Organic Program.
- The National Organic Program certifies producers and products, but only of finished goods, i.e., food and fiber.
- In the end, much of what is meant by the term organic is based on the reliability of the company making the claim.
If you are looking for a product that you can use with confidence in your lawn or garden, buy from a reputable dealer who sells products from reliable companies, and look for the “OMRI Listed” designation . Even at that, though, Caveat Emptor!
Stay tuned for our next blog post about the term “All Natural.” In the meantime, here are some handy links:
- OMRI – information that organic farmers, handlers, certifiers, and other members of the organic community might find useful.
- USDA National Organic Program - organic standards, certification and accreditation, plus compliance and enforcement links.
- USDA Organic Roots Collection – electronic collection of historic documents published before 1942 – a time before synthetic chemicals became widely used. Find state-of-the-art information and data that is still pertinent for today’s organic and sustainable agriculture.
- HowToGoOrganic.com – The Organic Trade Association offers this resource to help cultivate the growth of organic farming.