Tougher Take on Organic Standards
Alleged fertilizer fraud in Gonzales prompts new USDA rules.
Wednesday, November 24, 2010
For years, Peter Townsley, then-president of California Liquid Fertilizers in Gonzales, allegedly told local and other organic farmers that his Biolizer fertilizer was composed of fishmeal and feather meal, while he actually filled it with synthetics.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office indicted Townsley earlier this year on fraud-related charges that could result in a lengthy prison sentence. Townsley, who appeared in federal court in San Francisco on Nov. 19 for a bail hearing, is due to continue that process in December. But already, the case has spurred the U.S. Department of Agriculture to tighten its organic regulations.
The agency’s National Organics Program will now require high-nitrogen fertilizers like Biolizer, which are used on crops such as lettuce and broccoli, to undergo twice-yearly inspections, says Peggy Miars, who heads the Organic Materials Review Institute.
In the past, OMRI, a private Oregon-based organization, would simply verify for farmers that ingredients listed on organic cleaners, fertilizers and pesticides were organic.
Ed Gilday, CEO of Massachusetts-based Converted Organics, which bought Townsley’s company and now makes organic fertilizer in its former Gonzales facility, says the business had been largely built on trust; organic farmers would rely on manufacturers’ labels.
Miars says a complaint to the USDA sparked the Townsley investigation. “They could have been alerted through a competitor,” she says. “[Synthetic fertilizer] would have resulted in really fast-growing crops.”
The scandal’s silver lining is the emergence of tougher rules, Miars says.
“Organic got a black eye… I hope this news shows that the enforcement program works.”