The chemicals known as per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) continue to come to light as contaminants in agriculture. Maine farms, conventional and organic, are increasingly testing water, soil and crops to determine if PFAS contamination exists. These forever chemicals persist in the environment decades after they were used and this problem is not specific to Maine. Maine farmers, however, are at the forefront of testing and actively seeking to understand and address this issue. We are all still just beginning to understand the impact that a legacy of PFAS contamination in agriculture may have and are working closely with impacted growers to offer support.
PFAS have been widely used since the 1950s in products ranging from food packaging to fire fighting foam. PFAS have recently been recognized as contaminants in agriculture and are believed to largely be entering soil through the application of biosolids, industrial sludges and ashes, which may contain these compounds that break down very little over decades, or longer.
For decades PFAS containing sludges were marketed to farmers as a safe and cost effective source of fertilization. While biosolids have never been permitted in MOFGA and USDA organic production, land that is in production now, organic and conventional, may be contaminated without the knowledge of the current landowner, or the organic certifier of the operation.
What happens to your business if you have high test results?
MOFGA will be publishing additional guidance as information becomes available and screening thresholds for crops and other products are set. Currently, there are only a few screening levels set (for example, residential water: 20 ppt sum of 6 PFAS, milk: 210 ppt PFOS, beef:3.4 ppb PFOS). There are no federal thresholds for PFAS contamination that tie to the USDA National Organic Program Regulations. However, when additional screening levels are determined by the Maine CDC, contaminated products will be deemed adulterated by the Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry and affected farms will not be allowed to sell those products. This will trigger the organic certifier of those products to abide by and uphold the state’s decision. The certifier may choose to issue a notice of non-compliance, which would require a corrective action plan from the producer (namely, remediation to bring the levels into compliance with the state threshold). A non-compliance notice reflects that some part of the producer’s organic system plan is not compliant, though correctable – in this case that there is an issue with state level licensure that needs to be corrected. These screening levels, and the research that informs them, are in their infancy – the screening levels guidance document was last revised 6.28.21, and updates are likely.
How can a farm be certified organic if they have PFAS contamination?
Organic agriculture is based on the growing practices of the farmer and recent history of the land, with the organic standards requiring a 36-month transition period from conventional land management to organic. This means the land is managed without prohibited substances for three years prior to the harvest of an organic crop. This standard, along with the requirements of organic production, greatly lessen chances of exposure to conventional pesticides, as intended. As we now know, this is not necessarily the case with “forever chemicals” such as PFAS. While this may be particularly discouraging for consumers who have sought out organic foods to minimize their exposure to all synthetic chemicals, this is a much larger food safety issue affecting all agricultural products and needing federal action immediately to address any food safety risk across the board.
The MOFGA website also provides a resource landing page for farmers, gardeners and the community, including links to state agency information, testing resources, etc.
- To provide short-term income replacement for farms that the Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry (DACF) has identified as having high test results.
- To help pay for initial PFAS testing on farms that choose to do their own testing.
- To support access to mental health services for impacted farmers