The USDA does not control the labeling of fertilizers in the same way it sets standards for other types of organic products. Fertilizer production standards fall under each state's regulatory system. There are many fertilizer products sold as "organic" that do not follow the standards of certification of the USDA's National Organic Program. Consumers must be wary of claims made by many fertilizer companies.
Fertilizer label claims are regulated by state fertilizer control officials, who belong to the Association of American Plant Food Control Officials (AAPFCO). Their use of the word "organic" is based more on organic chemistry than on the standards of organic agriculture, according to Jim Riddle, chairman of the USDA's National Organic Standards Board. "Although many 'organic' fertilizers comply with NOP regulations, many do not."
The AAPFCO fertilizer control board allows the terms "organic fertilizer," "natural organic fertilizer," "natural fertilizer" and "organic base fertilizer" on products that may contain urea (urine) and sewage sludge. The Organic Trade Association has requested the AAPFCO require the term "organic" when used on a fertilizer product, mean "that the claim of the product, compound, mixture of compounds, or constituent to be organic has been allowed or allowed with restriction by the United States Department of Agriculture's National Organic Program as specified in 7 CFR Part 205."
Home gardeners have an expectation of the word "organic" and can be susceptible to deception in the marketplace. Many fertilizer products use words such as "natural" and "organic ingredients" without applying USDA organic standards. Fertilizers that contain dried sewage sludge are often labeled "organic" but are prohibited in organic agriculture. Peat moss in potting soil may contain synthetic fertilizers and still be labeled "organic."
The National Organic Program defines organic production as "a production system that is managed ... to respond to site-specific conditions by integrating cultural, biological and mechanical practices that foster cycling of resources, promote ecological balance and conserve biodiversity." Packaging materials that contain fungicides, preservatives or fumigants is also prohibited. Certified organic farms are required to identify all products used in their agricultural practices.
Homemade compost fertilizer may be the best solution to guarantee organic fertilizer for the garden until the fertilizer industry accepts USDA National Organic Program standards for production and certification. Composting is easy and there are many local recycling programs that offer workshops and compost bins cheaply. Check the ingredients on fertilizers purchased as "organic." Reputable companies often have website information about their production standards.