logo logo

Can compost be truly organic? Part 3

The big problem with so-called ‘organic’ composts available to gardeners today is that they include the composted contents of green waste from household recycling centres. This factor alone means that the contents are not, and cannot be, certified as organic according to Soil Association standards – despite what it may say on the bag.

Soil Association ‘approval’, it should be noted, is not the same as ‘certification’. Sometimes things which are not organic can be approved for restricted use on organic farms, because the EU allows it. For instance, the use of Bordeaux mixture is allowed (on a restricted basis) to combat tomato blight, as there are simply no effective organic treatments known. But Bordeaux mixture is basically copper sulphate, a toxic chemical that is certainly not organic and can build up in the soil.

As previously mentioned, green waste contains all kinds of non-organic material that you really wouldn’t want to put on your garden – flakes of paint, chipboard, plastic, rubber and so on. Since any batch of compost is going to be an average of all the hundreds of households whose waste went into making it, we can safely say there are some pesticide and herbicide residues in there too.

Despite all this obviously non-organic content, compost manufacturers sometimes cite Soil Association approval or certification, and sometimes use their logo along with the word ‘organic’ on the bags. In order to find out the Soil Association’s position on these claims, we contacted them.

Misleading websites? You decide…

One compost website focuses on the very negative environmental effect of mining peat as a main ingredient for compost. It describes its own compost product as an environmentally-friendly alternative, and goes on to say:

‘Soil Association and PAS100 certified these peat free, organic conditioners are produced entirely from recycled garden material.’

Given that the wording is a direct quote from their website, do you feel led to believe that their product is organic, and Soil Association certified as such? However, when read by a certification officer at the Soil Association, her comment was ‘They really shouldn’t be saying that. It sounds as if it’s approved as being organic by us, and that’s not the case’.

The website of a supplier of so-called ‘organic’ poultry manure, which claims that their product is ‘one of the few genuine organic fertilisers, which is approved by the Soil Association’ will now be changed because of Soil Association intervention arising from our investigation.

When it was pointed out to one of the chief certification officers at the Soil Association that green waste is open to all types of contamination and can never therefore be said to be truly organic, he commented ‘I wouldn’t disagree with that’. In fact, the Soil Association has now decided – apparently in the last month – to begin investigating sales claims for ‘organic’ composts in general. If it is found to be misleading, they will insist that the wording is changed.

wreath pic, image

Aminopyralid and clopyralid

As an example of how ‘organic’ composts can be contaminated, two herbicides (aminoparylid and cloparylid) were recently re-approved for use in the UK. Aminoparylid is more commonly found in agricultural herbicides, and cloparylid in those approved for domestic use. Both of them hit the headlines in 2008 when it became apparent that they passed unchanged through the guts of farm animals. When the resulting manure was applied to food crops they became badly stunted as they grew, and many died. Both chemicals were banned at that time pending while ‘options were investigated’.

In recognising the potential for crop damage (but while not addressing the health risks), the government has recently decreed that the following warning must appear on any domestic herbicides (referred to as ‘amateur products’) containing cloparylid:

“After treatment, leave the clippings from the first mowing on the lawn. The next three mowings should be composted well, for at least 9 months, before being used as a mulch. Do not dispose of the grass clippings via council composting schemes.”

Unfortunately, the composting process used for green waste – which is typically for only 6 months or less – is not sufficient to break down the chemical to the government’s definition of ‘safe’. Unfortunately, manufacturers of clopyralid products have until 15 February 2014 to comply with the label addition, and it’s doubtful if many householders will pay any attention in any case.

Are there any TRULY organic composts?

The July edition of Home Farmer magazine included a letter to the editor which detailed much of the information that has now appeared here on FarmInMyPocket. The editor added a note, requesting any companies producing a real, genuine organic compost to please get in touch.

So far, not a single company has done so. All in all, it’s a really bad time to buy compost.

Part One and Part Two of this article

If you enjoyed this post, please leave a comment or subscribe to the RSS feed to have future articles delivered to your feed reader.

5 Responses to “Can compost be truly organic? Part 3”

  1. alberta ross says:

    I compost all my garden waste back on the garden or in compost bins which in theroy should give me organic compost as I do not use any pesticides etc in the garden however I also compost the sweepings from the floors in the house so depending on what is brought in from outside on our shoes and the cat litter is sawdust pellets which also goes on the heap so no – so even my home grown stuff isn’t as squeaky as it could be. But I do think it’s the best I can have.

    • Mark Gatter says:

      It sounds pretty good – although if you are composting ‘used’ cat litter, you are at some risk from pathogens. I hope you compost ‘hot’, and for a long time, if that’s the case! But from the organic point of view, what you’re doing is probably more organic than what you could buy – even with floor sweepings…which, if it was me, I think I would leave out.

  2. Compostwoman says:

    I am puzzled by your statement “All in all, it’s a really bad time to buy compost” as there are a number of genuinely approved SA certified composts available.

    I know, as I use some of them and various SA certified grower friends do as well.

    See this link for the SA document which gives guidance and lists them. I suspect there are more now, as the doc dates from 2009.


    • Mark Gatter says:

      Compost is generally defined as ‘a mixture of decaying organic matter, as from leaves and manure, used to improve soil structure and provide nutrients’. So bags of bark, great for the long-term improvement of soil structure, are very likely to be 100% organic. It’s the nutrients that call the organic nature of commercial compost into question.

      In writing these three articles, some of the manufacturers listed in your SA doc (link, above) were approached, as well as several officers in the certification department of the Soil Association itself. The consensus, even from manufacturers, was that green waste cannot be truly certified as organic.

      Politically, it’s very important to find an alternative to landfill. Agriculturally, it’s important to allow some leeway in ‘organic’ farming so that non-organic compounds such as Bordeaux Mixture can be used. So, the position of the SA is not as straighforward as some of their employees would like it to be, and we too are persuaded by the same kind of political pressure and the needs of agriculture to accept many commercial composts as organic when, alas, they are not. The SA is constrained by laws, and those laws are a compromise rather than an ideal. The categories shown opposite every product in the list in the linked document above (‘with justification, with approval, with permission’), restrict their use to specific needs (i.e. the use of Bordeaux Mixture against blight on an organic tomato farm), a plan which requires SA approval, or the need to get permission prior to each use. If the product was utterly, 100% organic, these restrictions would simply not be needed.

      The comment in our article, ‘I wouldn’t disagree with that’ by a chief certification officer at the SA sums up exactly why it’s a bad time to buy compost: it would be great if green waste was truly organic – but unfortunately, it’s not.

  3. Emmett says:

    Thanks for writing “Can compost be truly organic?
    Part 3 | Farm In My Pocket | Farm In My Pocket”. Iwill definitely be back for alot more reading and commenting here
    shortly. I am grateful, Vicki

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *