Key problems of the Fertilizers Act

Key problems of the Fertilizer Act,  Regulations and Guidances

The Fertilizer Act covers commercial synthetic and biological fertilizers, supplements, amendments, plant hormone regulators, biostimulants, and fertilizer / pesticide combinations (in combination with the Pest Control Products Act). The Act also has extensive regulations which have recently been updated for micronutrients, innoculants, biostimulants and nitrification inhibitors. Old regulations can still be followed until 2023.  The CFIA, the primary regulatory authority under the Act, also has issued more detailed Guidances to direct both industry and staff on the implementation of the Act and Regulations.  The discussion here is derived from the new regulations.

A general criticism of the process is that the requirements are designed to minimize safety hazards associated with many products that should not be used as much as they  are for soil health reasons, but the products we should be using are caught up in many of the  rules applied to less desirable products which makes preferable ones more difficult to commercialize.  In other words, the rules of the Act and Regulations favour synthetic chemicals over biological materials.

Antiquated definitions

A fertilizer is defined as any substance or mixture of substances, containing nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium or other plant food, manufactured, sold or represented for use as a plant nutrient

A supplement is defined as any substance or mixture of substances, other than a fertilizer, that is manufactured, sold or represented for use in the improvement of the physical condition of soils or to aid plant growth or crop yields

Whether a supplement has direct or indirect effects is not specified in the regulations.

In these definitions we see the ideological split between physical and chemical properties of soil.  This is a long-standing problem of the evolution of soil science whereby sub-disciplines were atomized (see Bouma, 2010), with soil chemistry and fertility evolving from its parent chemistry discipline and soil physics from physics. This, in itself, was problematic since soil as a very complex and heterogenous material, does not perform in the same way as many of the materials from which chemistry and physics models and theories were derived.  The role of soil organisms and soil organic matter was unknown or poorly understood as these fields emerged and remains underdeveloped.  The reality is that soil organisms and soil organic matter play fundamental roles in both fertility and physical properties. Many organic materials serve as food sources for soil organisms that then regulate nutrient cycling. These current definitions reflect an inaccurate interpretation of soil processes.

Because of these definitions, where organic materials are regulated then doesn't make sense.  Examining the primary materials that have exemptions from registration, the following organic materials are considered supplements: biochar, compost from heterogeneous organic material, fulvic acid, humic acid and humic substances, humus, peat and moss.  Looking at this Primary List, synthetic fertilizers are by and large considered fertilizers, while most organic substances and naturally occurring materials with minimal treatment are considered supplements. Yet, biological materials also have significant fertility properties.  In many cases a supplement is an organic material that the regulators can't really define and for which they think the evidence of fertilizer value is inconsistent.  This speaks again both the anti-fraud orientation of the Act, the associated administrative requirements for a certain kind of precision, and to the limited dominant paradigms of soil science.

Exemptions from registration don't necessarily make sense from a soil health perspective

There are two kinds of exemptions: not covered at all by the Act; and exempt from registration and pre-market assessment, but covered by the Act.  Most of the exemptions are established materials for which assessments have been done in the past. Flow charts on registration can be found in the CFIA Registration Triggers document.

The Act does not cover use of on-farm sources of fertility since its focus is commercial fertilizers and supplements. Manure in it's natural state, for example, is exempt from the Act.  Raw manure is not often sold because the costs of transport are so high per fertility unit (alot of moisture), but there are some limited manure transactions, many of which are probably unreported. The exemption is problematic relative to what's regulated since applying raw manure is not generally advisable for soil health. But manure use is regulated by the provinces. Because of poor farm designs related to crop / land base / animal densities, many farms generate excessive amounts of manure, which creates an imperative for raw manure spreading.

In contrast, composted manure is subject to the Act as a fertilizer, but can be exempt from registration under certain parameters (at least 51% manure).  Composted manure is generally a much more desirable fertilizer than raw manure. Compost teas do not meet the definition of compost and therefore must be registered.  Municipal biosolids (septage and sewage sludge) and dried and ground tankage are also exempt from registration and use is regulated at the provincial level.  These materials are also currently not generally advisable for soil health because of contaminants associated with either source of treatment.  Because municipalities generate so much sewage sludge, there is also an imperative to apply it to farmland.

Safety analytical requirements

Requirements to provide assurance that heavy metals, dioxins and furans, microbial contaminants (salmonella and faecal coliforms) are within acceptable limits.  Depending on the product and its status, there can be up to 3 layers of safety assessment (and associated data) required.  As is often the case, SMEs may find it more difficult to fund the safety analyses while large firms have more extensive resources to draw on.

No assessment is required of long term impacts on soil quality based on synthetic fertilizer application rates.  There do not appear to be any post-market monitoring requirements for such assessments, although some have been done by scientists not directly connected to the regulatory process.

Guaranteed analysis and labeling

Rules for biological materials are largely the same as for synthetic chemical fertilizers, see CFIA Guide to submitting applications re: guaranteed analysis. For many, the additional requirement would be to analyze and label for organic matter content.

Relative to earlier periods, there has been some relaxing of compositional requirements (sometimes a wide range is accepted) for some biological materials that can be listed as fertilizer. However, guaranteed analysis for compost is required on a label, but this under-represents its value..There is excessive focus on the grade (the N,P, and K composition) whereas complex biological materials provide a wider range of nutrients, directly and indirectly, that are certainly not apparent from the label.

More complex secondary materials

The fertilizer industry is manufacturing or importing increasing numbers of secondary materials that help with application and uptake of fertilizers, including wetting agents, nutrient release and availability polymers, inerts to improve spray- or spread-ability, lubricants for application machinery, and anti-foam and anti-freeze agents for seed treatments. This has required a new set of regulatory rules and pathways.  Many of these materials are useful to make nutrient use more efficient, but if the focus is shifting away from synthetic chemical fertilizers, many of them become less useful and suitable for commercialization, especially if there are conditions associated with their registration.

Efficacy studies

Although recommend uses and rates must be specified, Canada  is no longer regulating fertilizer and supplement efficacy. There are no requirements for comparative efficacy assessment.  This means of course, that no comparative analysis of how products contribute to soil health are required.  CFIA may apparently require efficacy testing on a  case by case basis but how often this will happen is unclear.

Industry often claims that efficacy studies impede innovation, which begs the question what kind of innovation do they think is important? If a product is not more effective than a wide variety of options already on the market, should it be permitted? As discussed under Why did we become so reliant on synthetic fertilizers?, the absence of proper comparative assessment has meant that biological sources are undervalued and the benefits of synthetic fertilzers over-estimated.