Fertilizer warning: Don’t pay $12 an acre for ‘foo-foo dust’

Buyer beware, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency no longer tests fertilizers for efficacy and quality

A“streamlining” of federal oversight of fertilizers has opened the door to deceptive marketing claims and forced product testing on to farmers.

“There have always been con men trying to sell you things with dubious claims. It’s just maybe easier for them now,” said Harry Brook, a crop specialist with Alberta Agriculture and Rural Development.

“All of a sudden, we’re seeing a whole bunch of fertilizer products being promoted, but a farmer has to ask: Are they actually effective? For a lot of these products, there’s no research or they are taking the research out of context for their marketing purposes. It amounts certainly to millions of dollars being spent by Alberta producers on questionable products.”

Just over two years ago, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency got out of the business of testing fertilizers for efficacy and quality. Since then, fertilizers merely have to be proven safe to be registered.

Some products now being sold are obviously problematic, said Brook. For example, despite product claims to the contrary, Alberta’s naturally calcareous soils will never benefit from the application of additional calcium. As well, foliarly applied macronutrients will never provide enough nutrient to have any 
yield effect (if they did, they’d burn the plants), he said. And there’s 
no such thing as ‘more plant-accessible’ nitrogen.

“A pound of nitrogen is a pound of nitrogen is a pound of nitrogen, that’s what you calculate your costs on,” said Brook.

Some product claims are sneakier.

Sprayed foliarly onto a crop, iron turns plant leaves dark green. But the dark-green colour does not indicate improved health, nor does it have any impact on yield, especially in Alberta where our soils have a natural oversupply of iron, he said.

Likewise, read labels carefully to determine how much actual nutrient is contained in the product.

“Many of the trace mineral products now available have infinitesimal amounts of the various products,” said Brook. “A whole lot of it is foo-foo dust — they’ll charge you anywhere from $7 to $12 per acre for a product that might have 50 cents of actual fertilizer in it.”

The move to deregulation shouldn’t have come as a surprise. With an increasing number of products seeking registration, yet declining government research dollars, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency simply didn’t have the capacity to continue proving or disproving efficacy claims.

“We thought the previous system worked well for growers,” said Clyde Graham, senior vice-president at the Canadian Fertilizer Institute.

“The Government of Canada made a decision based on cost, and so we are working through that change. Maybe these are the growing pains of regulatory change.”

The vast majority are reputable products, he said.

“Members of our industry want to be sure the products they sell are quality products,” said Graham. “For the most part, farmers can rely on the products they are buying. Where farmers might want to exercise the most caution is if it’s a product they’re not familiar with.”

In the absence of government testing, farmers should stick with products they know (Schedule 2 products will always be a safe bet), work with a reputable ag dealer, and seek professional advice from a certified agrologist on any new or novel products, said Graham.

If they do opt for a new-to-them product, farmers need to do their own careful and scientific product testing. They should start with a small amount of the new product on a small sample area, doing their best to make sure the only difference between the test and control plots is the product itself.

Brook has one more piece of advice.

“For God’s sake: measure!” he said. “Everyone has a monitor on their combine: Measure, be skeptical, prove it to yourself.”

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