SAN FRANCISCO – The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) must cease allowing the use of compost containing pesticides in organic farming as of Aug. 22, according to a federal court ruling in Northern California.

The ruling in the case focused on whether the USDA failed to conduct public review of its policy regarding pesticides in organic compost. Northern California District Court Judge Jacqueline Scott Corley ruled June 20 that the USDA’s National Organic Program conducted business and made changes without public comment or notice.

The chemical under specific scrutiny in the compost was the insecticide bifenthrin.

According to Toxipedia, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has identified bifenthrin as a class C carcinogen. A class C carcinogen is a possible cancer-causing agent in humans.

“The way it was getting into the compost was from municipal green waste like lawn clippings,” Amy Van Saun, an attorney with the Center for Food Safety who worked on the case, told the Northern California Record.

The Center for Food Safety as well as the Center for Environmental Health and Beyond Pesticides were plaintiffs in the case.

Van Saun said grass and hedge clippings are often used in compost because it provides good carbon material for the compost.

Van Saun said bifenthrin is “a relatively new contaminate.” It was approved for household use on lawns in 2009.

She said that as for organic farming, there is “a big set of rules and standards” that have to be followed.

First, producers or farmers draft up an organic system plan, including a list of all approved fertilizers and composts to be used in their operations.

“Mostly it’s no synthetics at all,” Van Saun said.

The USDA provides farmers with a list of approved substances they can use in their operation. She said farmers were not required to test every batch of compost they were using, as long as the list had been approved.

Van Saun said there was no mandatory testing of every bit of compost to weed out any potential chemicals. She said the USDA had previously called out municipal compost or yard waste as being “potentially suspect.”

“It’s largely the burden of the certifier,” she said of checking for pesticides and chemicals in compost.

“I think the ramification is basically that farmers who are growing organic are supposed to be doing everything they can to have an environmentally healthy way of farming. That means keeping pesticide contamination from the non-organic world out of that system.”

Van Saun said in one instance bifenthrin was detected when a plant began sprouting out of compost and that plant was contaminated with the insecticide. It was found that the bifenthrin was coming from the compost and not from the plant itself.

In 2009, the California Department of Food and Agriculture found three batches of compost products that contained bifenthrin and stopped their use.

“California is a state that’s been very far ahead in terms of collecting yard waste,” Van Saun said. “If it’s a state like California that’s collecting a lot of yard waste and using it for compost, then that’s where the issue is."

Van Saun said the court’s decision to stop use of pesticide-containing compost is “very critical for keeping loopholes for pesticides out of the organic program.”

“What consumers expect out of organic is ‘pesticide free,’” she said. “The idea that they (pesticides) could come in with this intentional use we thought was a loophole in the organic program."

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