My humble beginnings in the organic industry began in 1976 in a small co-op in Iowa. The people were eclectic, and I was drawn to the culture as much as I was the idea of providing healthy organic foods to my community. We were a nascent movement, getting back to the land and nature. Growing, selling and eating organic foods—we were a palpable crusade of Birkenstock bedecked folks who wanted to leave the world a better place through food and agriculture.
I was involved in a bit of midwifery helping to birth the organic movement. Fast forward almost 40 years later, has the organic industry truly grown up?
The state of the organic adolescent
Every year the Organic Trade Association studies and surveys the Organic Industry. According to their latest, sales of organic food and non-food products in the United States broke another record in 2016, totaling a whopping $43.3 billion, up double digits from the previous year.
In 2016 the USDA announced a significant increase in the number of certified organic operations, continuing the trend of double-digit growth in the organic sector. According to new data, there are now 21,781 certified organic operations in the United States and 31,160 around the world.
Organic continues its growth spurts despite the struggles we have with tight supplies in some sectors.
We have a long way to grow to adulthood
Back in 1997 when I was just starting my own business, organic food sales were just $3.4 billion and under 1% of total food sales. The hard work paid off and now organic is at 5% of total food sales. Today as I sit at my desk and I cogitate on the possibilities—I wonder if we have really gone beyond juvenile delinquency. Should we be satisfied to be just 5% of food?
The spawn is growing, but it still represents only 2% of total agriculture in the US. Has my life’s work been spent for 2% of the total body of agriculture? What kind of incubator is this?
Think about the potential organic agriculture has. Shouldn’t we be striving for more than 2% in this world of ecological woes? An increase in organic acreage has the potential to build and preserve our topsoil, clean up our nitrogen and pesticide laden waters. Studies show organic agriculture sequesters carbon, protects wildlife and pollinators, and definitely reduces our exposure to toxic chemicals.
A final push for organic maturity
We clearly need to induce a final thrust to help bring the organic industry into adulthood. We need more organic farmers, plain and simple. We must recruit young people and train existing farmers with more technical assistance to help them transition land into organic.
It’s critical that we have the funds for more science and research to help organic farmers produce more efficiently with higher yields. Organic seed breeding and research are essential to helping producers succeed in the midst of a changing climate.
This can all be accomplished and much more if the organic community pools their funds and approves the GRO Check-Off Program. If everyone pays a little, we can have enough funds to match USDA research dollars at land grant universities. Transitioning farmers will have the technical assistance and training to bring more acreage under organic production. The public can be educated on the true meaning of organic.
Take action today
If you care about the future of organic the time to act is now; the USDA is waiting to hear from you. They published a proposed rule in the Federal Register on the GRO Organic Check–Off Program that could provide funds for a stronger more resilient organic industry. The USDA needs to hear from everyone—farmer, consumer, manufacturer, and handler, that’s YOU before April 19th.
If you believe organic food and agriculture needs another push to gain adulthood, please weigh in today. Take an extra moment to add details describing who you are and why you think this is important as an organic stakeholder.
The future is ours to create.