The Many Meanings of “Organic” – Part II

Thanks for checking back in for Part II of our discussion about what “organic” means as relates to compost.  To summarize Part I of this article, “organic” compost is primarily regulated by the USDA’s National Organic Program (NOP). The USDA has accredited 85 certifying agencies, of which there are currently 49 in the U.S. 

The Organic Materials Review Institute (OMRI) is one of the most known and reputable names associated with “certified” organic; however, OMRI is not a certifying agent primarily because they are are looking at inputs into “certified organic”; Part I of this discussion provides a link to OMRI’s explanation of certainly recognizing NOP standards.  And, we provided a definition of the core requirements for labeling compost “organic” in this country.  For Green Planet Naturals to be registered with the Washington State Department of Agriculture, a USDA certifying agency, means we do the following when making compost – each and every time:

  • Combine plant and animal material with an initial C:N (carbon to nitrogen) ratio of between 25:1 and 40:1, 
  • Produce compost using a windrow system that includes,
  • Compost materials between 131 and 170 degrees Fahrenheit for 15 days, during which time,
  • Materials are turned at least five times.

Beyond that, organic compost makers may use varying materials or “feedstocks” in making compost.  At Green Planet Naturals, we follow a consistent “recipe” of softwood shavings, straw and/or hay, fruit/food waste, and manures. As I mentioned in the first article, we don’t use yard waste.


It is common for the feedstocks used in making organic compost to be misunderstood. Feedstocks for organic compost are not required to be “certified organic”, meaning food waste isn’t required to be organic, manures are not just from organically fed animals, and other materials are not necessarily free of herbicides, pesticides, preservatives or other chemicals. The thermophylic cycle, or period of heating the compost to on average 150
degrees for 15 days is required for compost to be used in organic food production and handling. This heating  process is crucial for reducing pathogens and weed seeds, and degrades nearly all chemicals that may have been present in the original feedstocks.Words such as “reduce” and “degrades nearly all” are used because the degrading process of chemicals and elimination of pathogens and weed seeds, while considered substantial in terms of organic food production, is not guaranteed or absolute. The following article discusses the complexities of understanding the chemical degradation process in compost production, and that only a couple pesticides present significant concern of not degrading to acceptable levels.

“The elevated or thermophilic temperatures achieved during composting permit faster biochemical reactions than possible under ambient temperatures, accelerating pesticide degradation. … Clopyralid and picloram are of concern because they have shown up in compost on at least two occasions. …Clopyralid is apparently more problematic than picloram… “   Persistence and Degradation of Pesticides in Composting (PDF format), California Integrated Waste Management Board, 2002.

Looked at from another perspective, it would be nearly impossible to assure that organic only feedstocks were used in the production of compost. It would require a huge burden economically to thoroughly document the sources and treatments of all feedstocks. Another example is the common use of animal manures in composting.  It would be hard to assure completely that the animals were never feed anything but organic feed, hay, or grains and that they had not been exposed to other chemicals through inoculations or medications.So in summary, the thermophilic process has a great deal to do with what makes organic compost, “organic”, not so much the origin of the feedstocks.  This is a bit different than what we expect of “certified” organically grown foods, where the use of chemicals is highly restricted. All this is meant to illustrate that “organic” is a complex topic and subject to varying definitions and meanings depending on a particular application. To end, I’ll add yet another definition of “organic, one used by the science community including the staff of departments of agriculture. These folks will most often define “organic” as something that is or was a “carbon life form”, not something to do with whether it has been exposed to chemicals or not.Linda Brown, General Manager, Green Planet Naturals

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