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Organic stakeholders, experts hone in on use of compost and manure

OTA and Organic Center collaborate to shape research on critical organic issue

Maggie McNeil
(202) 403-8514
(202) 615-7997
Washington , DC
January 29, 2016
) — 

A diverse group of organic farmers, agricultural extension agents, scientific experts, and public officials gathered for two days this week at the University of California, Davis to study the use of manure in organic production in the first steps to shape a critical research plan on one of the most pressing issues for the organic community.

The Organic Center (TOC) and the Organic Trade Association (OTA) joined forces to hold the "Manure Safety Discussion Session" on January 25 and 26 in collaboration with UC Davis. The session looked at the challenges associated with manure and compost application, and was the kick-off of a national effort by OTA and TOC to evaluate the needs and concerns of organic producers surrounding the safe use of manure and compost, particularly in the production of organic vegetables, fruit and nuts.

The workshop was funded by a grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture's (USDA's) Organic Agriculture Research and Extension Initiative (OREI). The results will be incorporated into a proposal for a long-term research project to study the use of untreated manure and compost in organic agriculture and the impacts of those practices on food safety.

"The organic community is committed to producing the safest and highest quality food," said Dr. Jessica Shade, Director of Science Programs at The Organic Center. "The study of current practices used by the organic industry related to manure and compost use will help the government's efforts to improve production and handling regulations that impact food safety, and this workshop provided valuable feedback."

The session in California marked the official start of a series of farmer-focused information-gathering sessions being held by OTA and TOC over the coming months at organic farming conferences throughout the nation. These listening sessions will allow farmers to voice their concerns, share their priorities and discuss their beliefs regarding the use of manure and compost and any potential associated food safety risks. Information will also be gathered through online surveys and interviews.

Making sure organic farmers are heard

The impetus of the OREI grant funding these sessions was the ongoing implementation by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) of the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA). FDA last fall revised some of its new rules putting into place the FSMA regulations. Of the revisions, one of the most notable for organic were changes made relating to the use of compost and manure and the required interval that untreated manure could be applied and crops harvested.

Instead of its earlier proposed 9-month minimum interval requirement, FDA moved to give the agency time to conduct research into determining an appropriate science-based application interval. FDA expects this process will take at least five years. In the meantime, all organic operations covered under the Produce Safety Rule continue to follow the established National Organic Program required 90- or 120-day intervals for application of untreated manure.

FDA is expected to soon announce its approach for its risk assessment that the agency will use in making its decision on the appropriate interval time for manure application and crop harvest. The study being conducted by OTA and TOC will work in parallel with the FDA study to ensure that FDA is using the most current science, and is taking into account the unique needs of organic producers.

(For more information on the Food Safety Modernization Act and its impact on organic, see OTA's background page.)

"It is critically important that organic producers are being heard on this issue," said Nate Lewis, Senior Crop and Livestock Specialist for OTA. "Certified organic producers use animal-based soil amendments such as manure and compost to improve soil fertility and quality instead of chemical fertilizers. OTA and The Center have worked with FDA in this process from the beginning, and the input we gather will be foundational for developing a relevant long-term research plan."

Filling the knowledge gap

Officials from FDA attended this week's workshop in California, and discussed the agency's upcoming risk assessment analysis framework, encouraging the group to work with the knowledge gaps that will be identified in FDA's publication of its approach.

Also at the workshop, USDA research microbiologist Pat Miller summarized the most current research findings around untreated manure wait times for food safety, covering concerns such as the potential for pathogen regrowth in soils, compost stability and quality, the wait period between application or incorporation of untreated manure and crop harvests, and the effect of soil health on pathogen survival.

Speakers covered compost and soil health, and the industry's perspective on compost. The presentations were followed by discussion sessions centered around manure, compost, extension, and farmer trainings to identify gaps in knowledge about the science supporting food safety.

"The more research that is done on the use of manure and compost, the better-equipped and more knowledgeable organic and non-organic farmers will be on the best agricultural practices for our health and the health of our environment," said Dr. Shade. "These sessions will help provide a foundation for that important research."

The Organic Center's mission is to convene credible, evidence-based science on the health and environmental benefits of organic food and farming and to communicate the findings to the public. The Center is an independent non-profit 501(c)(3) research and education organization operating under the administrative auspices of the Organic Trade Association.

The Organic Trade Association (OTA) is the membership-based business association for organic agriculture and products in North America. OTA is the leading voice for the organic trade in the United States, representing over 8,500 organic businesses across 50 states. Its members include growers, shippers, processors, certifiers, farmers' associations, distributors, importers, exporters, consultants, retailers and others. OTA's Board of Directors is democratically elected by its members. OTA's mission is to promote and protect ORGANIC with a unifying voice that serves and engages its diverse members from farm to marketplace.