Organic farmers question food safety regulations

Proposed manure restrictions would impact crops that come into contact with the soil.
Mateusz Perkowski

Capital Press

Published on November 26, 2013 10:25AM

Last changed on November 26, 2013 10:54AM

Organic farmers and others who rely on manure for soil fertility are worried about proposed food safety rules that would restrict the practice.

Under the U.S. Food and Drug Administration proposal, developed as part of the plan to implement the Food Safety Modernization Act, farmers would not be allowed to harvest certain crops for nine months after untreated manure was applied to the field.

The restriction applies to crops that can come in direct contact with the soil, such as carrots, lettuce and radishes.

Farmers and others have objected to the nine-month interval in comments submitted to the FDA, calling it impractical.

“For small scale farmers, this would mean we would need twice as much land to grow the crops we presently grow,” due to the season timing of planting and harvesting crops, said Shawn Murray, gardens manager at the Michael Fields Agricultural Institute, a non-profit in Wisconsin.

The proposed rule, which was made public earlier this year, would also require farmers to wait 45 days after application for fields treated with composted manure.

“For short rotation crops or those that need compost closer to harvest, it messes up practices that farmers have been using for a long time,” said Ariane Lotti, assistant policy director for the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition.

The coalition is urging the FDA to reduce the interval to four months for untreated compose and eliminate the interval for compost, which would be in line with current USDA rules for organic farmers, Lotti said.

Studies have show that the four-month interval is sufficient for food safety, but the FDA hasn’t looked at the full body of research, she said.

“This is an area that doesn’t have a sufficient scientific basis,” Lotti said. “The science is still emerging.”

The byproduct of the nine-month interval will be disproportionately onerous for family farmers that don’t want to use synthetic fertilizers, said Mark Kastel, co-founder of the Cornucopia Institute, an organic industry watchdog group.

“There are farmers who have expressed that (the rule) will cause some of their fields to lay fallow an entire season,” he said. “To create an environment that would make it impossible to farm organically would not be good for farms, the consumer or the environment.”

Growers are concerned about the intervals even though many would fall under an exemption to the rule for farmers who sell less than $500,000 of crops a year and market primarily to end users, Kastel said.

That’s because the proposed rule would basically allow the FDA to withdraw the exemption if the agency doesn’t like how the farm operates, he said. “They can pull that at any point, then you don’t have the exemption.”

Lotti said the FDA’s rules will probably end up dictating industry practices even for farmers who are exempt.

“Over the long term, these rules will become the food safety requirements that buyers have,” she said.

Many farmers who use manure would ultimately like to exceed $500,000 in revenues and break into new markets, Lotti said.

The rules shouldn’t prevent them from such growth or provide an incentive to use synthetic fertilizers, she said.


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