Farmers in Alaska who began officially certifying their produce as organic last year are concerned they may lose that label if standards being considered by the federal government are approved.
The problem is a chemical called ethoxyquin. It's used as a preservative in pet food and in spices such as paprika. It also is used in processing the fish meal and fish bone meal that many farmers use to fertilize their fields. That includes organic farmers.
Farmers say the fish meal is safe and they consider it organic since the ethoxyquin doesn't show up in any tests of soil or produce, said River Bean, who heads the nonprofit Alaska Organic Association and owns Palmer-based Arctic Organics.
The group, formed last year to certify and promote local organic produce, has approved the fish meal for use.
"We've tested in fields where we've used (fish meal) for 10 years and tested in our greenhouse, where we've really used a concentrated amount of fish meal for fertilizer, and there's no sign of it at all," Bean told the Anchorage Daily News.
But the chemical, at least for now, is not on the draft list of approved materials that can be used for growing organic produce.
That list, along with some other regulations, is expected to be completed later this year. That would mean only the produce that meets federal standards could be certified as organic. For the most part, anything synthetic is not included on the list.
Alaska's organic farmers may be out of luck unless they find a new kind of fertilizer. Just how large an impact that might have is not yet clear.
No one tracks how much Alaska produce is organic. But according to federal statistics, Southcentral Alaska had only 25 vegetable farms in 1997.
Four of those farms use fish meal and are certified as organic by the Alaska Organics Association.
Several other farms are not certified organic but use the fish meal because they see it as a natural alternative to chemical fertilizers, said Bob Greig, whose company, Alaska Sea-Ag, sells the fish bone meal fertilizer.
That might change if buyers learned the federal government considers the fertilizer nonorganic.
Greig said he sells 40 to 80 tons a year of the fertilizer, which is made by grinding up pollock and cod bones he gets from a plant in Kodiak.
Most of the fertilizer is distributed to area farmers, but Greig also sells to backyard gardeners through local nursery and feed stores. He also uses the fertilizer on his potato crop.
Greig said he began using fish meal because he wanted to get away from chemicals.
"There's a lot of farmers out here that are concerned with herbicide and pesticide issues and the amount of chemical fertilizers," he said.
The public also is demanding naturally grown fruits and vegetables.
Produce managers at local grocery stores say the demand for organic produce has risen steadily.
Steve Peterson, produce manager at New Sagaya's City Market downtown said organic produce now accounts for about 50 percent of its business.
The farmers say they're hoping to petition the government to add ethoxyquin to the approved list of materials and have asked state Division of Agriculture director Rob Wells to help.
Wells said he's reviewing the request.
"If the scientific testing holds up the way it seems it will, then I think it should be on the approved synthetic list," Wells said.