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.

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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

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