In California, a big organic fertilizer company got busted selling organic fertilizer illegally spiked with ammonium sulfate. Wait, is this déja vu? Didn't this happen last month, with pork, in Ireland? Only this time it throws a shadow on an industry that already struggles hard enough to get taken seriously: organics.

While both the fertilizer company (which owned 1/3 of the market share in California organics) and its customers, large organic farms like Earthbound and Driscoll, were certified organic, their practices, as far as I'm concerned, run counter to what organic farming ought to mean: creating soil fertility in a sustainable way, with very few inputs (especially off-farm inputs). "The kind of intensive monocropping that holds sway on California's industrial-scale organic farms generally ignore that challenge," writes the spot-on Tom Philpott on Grist. "They practice instead what's known as "'input substitution'—merely looking for a relatively benign replacement for industrial inputs like fertilizer and pesticide."

It's this kind of organic farming—the big, profitable, smells-kinda-like-conventional kind—that has caused the $20 billion jump in sales (more on that in my next post, on Thursday). In other posts, I've supported it, and I continue to maintain that some fertilizers are better than others (except, of course, when they're just pretending to be), and if fertilizers must be used, I'd rather they be of the less nefarious kind. But seriously: when will we understand that organic farming isn't just Conventional Lite?

This sort of bad news is in some ways worse than a sustainable food safety scandal like listeria in raw milk or e. coli in organic spinach, because whereas those are the occasional (unfortunate) casualties of food production, anyone who lets ammonium sulfate into organic fertilizer is NOT a real believer in organics. The calamitous fallout of their judgment taints the whole organic sphere.

What I don't understand is why, as reported in the Sacramento Bee, the president at the time of the adulteration is still employed, at a base salary of $200,000, by the publicly traded organic-fertilizer maker that bought the company last January.  

"What a dismal story, on so many levels," writes Marion Nestle in HuffPo. "Cheating is the Achilles' heel of organics. If trust goes, the organic industry collapses like a house of cards."

Story by Nathalie Jordi. This article originally appeared in "Plenty" in January 2009.

Copyright Environ Press 2009