Remember that 80′s movie Kidco? These adorable Cessna kids know that Harvey Peterjohn is filthy rich because he sells fertilizer, but when they realize that fertilizer is just a fancy way of saying animal dung, they shovel up everything on their horse farm and make lots of money for themselves. Well, if those kids were thinking about going into business now, they’d be SOL.
Driven by a concern over E.Coli and other bacteria found in animal manure fertilizer the FDA has proposed severe limitations its use. As if it’s not difficult enough to buy organic, these new rules will make it more of a challenge for organic farmers to thrive and for us to afford their products. And farmers are pissed.
Every highly productive farmer depends on fertilizer. But organic farmers are practically obsessive about it, because they’ve renounced industrial sources of nutrients.
“We think of it as the best thing in the world,” says organic farmer Jim Crawford, “and they think of it as toxic and nasty and disgusting.”
The FDA sites the cases of sickness and death over the past decade, including Earthbound Farms 2006 spinach E. coli contamination in which 200 people got sick and three died. However, raw manure was not the source of that outbreak so these measures wouldn’t have prevented those incidents. And while we’re at it, do we have to protect against every single avoidable risk? Even when the natural process and its benefits outweigh the risks?
It’s also part of a natural cycle, and the basis of organic farming. Most crops strip vital nutrients from the soil. But the nutrients don’t disappear; if you feed those crops to cattle or turkeys, the nutrients mostly end up in manure. For the turkey farmer, the manure is waste. For Crawford, it’s precious. “Cycling nutrients. That’s what it’s all about. Cycling organic nutrients.” This is a typical practice among organic farmers, especially the smaller ones. But they may now have to change.
Because some bacteria can live anywhere between a few weeks and 10 months, the FDA is proposing two controversial ways to prevent exposure. First, they recommend composting the animal waste. The heating process would kill off dangerous bacteria immediately — but it would also drive up costs three to six times what they are now. The second is waiting the better part of a year to harvest crops after laying down the manure. The current organic rules requires farmers wait four months, but the new rules are longer than an entire growing season.
“We wouldn’t even be able to function,” he [Crawford] says.
I rarely buy organic because it’s just so insanely expensive. When I do, I follow the conventional wisdom — buying those fruits that have thin porous skins and more vulnerable to pesticide absorption. I dream of a time when all farmers and food manufacturers get on board to make our food as safe as possible, but the FDA’s new national safety rules look like a step in the wrong direction for organic farmers.