I moved to central California as a teenager with the unlikely intention of following the Grateful Dead. I landed instead in the most fertile region of the Golden State. Rich with Salinas Valley loam and Central Valley heat, I arrived in the fruit and vegetable capital of the world. At the same time, organic agriculture was spreading its influence across the bountiful landscape, creeping into strawberry production, baby lettuce mixes, sweet peaches and pears. California was the cradle of organic agriculture, nurturing an agrarian child that would quickly grow to be a formidable presence. Is it possible that in the near future we can make organic the prevailing system of food and agriculture in California? Environmental Working Group (EWG) believes it is so!
In early May, I attended EWG’s Organic California Summit which brought together a myriad of organic thought leaders to envision the future of organic in California. The stories were similar, dedicated mission-driven work coupled with a little daring and good luck, organic businesses flourished in California from the early 1970’s to the present. Today California can boast its place as the Golden State of organic food and agriculture.
According to Kelly Damewood from California Certified Organic Farmers (CCOF), California has 21% of all certified organic farms in the U.S., representing 40% of all farm-gate sales with $12.34 billion in gross organic sales. We grow a diverse and distinct assortment of organic high-value crops such as nuts, berries, leafy greens, grapes, tomatoes and citrus. In fact, over 90% of all organic lemons, almonds, avocados, plums, processing tomatoes, raspberries, strawberries and grapes are grown in California! A full 100% of all organic pistachios, raisins, tangerines and figs are cultivated and harvested in the Golden State.
Organic contributes hundreds of millions of dollars in tax revenue and hundreds of thousands of jobs to the state’s economy. California enjoys the most “organic hot spots.” Organic hotspots boost household incomes and reduce poverty levels at greater rates than general agriculture activity. Indeed, I reside in an organic hot spot in Santa Cruz County, California. For years I have witnessed a multitude of organic farmers, farm workers, entrepreneurs, experts, and organizations like CCOF and the Organic Farming Research Foundation thrive around me. My entire life’s work has been torched by the glow of the hottest of organic spots!
Despite all this upbeat data, certified organic farmland is only 3% of California’s agricultural land at 790,413 acres, and organic represents only 4% of food purchases. How can we drive consumer awareness, advocacy and flex our political might to grow organic beyond these 3 and 4 percentile? As esteemed pod-caster of Farm to Table, Rodger Wasson said “Perhaps we should be congratulated—remember when Apple was considered a loser at 5% of all computing? Organics will certainly grow but presenting a growing ideal for our food system can matter more than arbitrary targets of market penetration.”
Ideas on how organic could penetrate the market and overtake acres were resounding. The Summit veritably purled with creativity.
An oft-repeated sentiment was that Millennials must be a key component to our messaging. Never before has a generation been more committed to food and the environment. They live with a true sense of mission; organic must evolve with a message that is meaningful and relevant.
Food is medicine, organic food heals the environment, and organic is good for farm workers and consumers. We must tell the stories of the soil, farm workers, animals and healthcare costs related to pesticide exposure. The organic message rings with mission and purpose for our youth.
For those in business, it is crucial to educate our top executives and leadership on the benefits of organic to the business and society. The earth is not just a subsidiary of our economies; if we hide the externalities inside our P&L’s, then no one is accountable.
Political and policy involvement is of portentous significance as we build the future of organic. Organic must be represented in the farm bill, food safety, crop insurance, access to credit, transition assistance, distribution, infrastructure build out, research and regulations. We must play defense at the federal level with the current Administration and Congress so that organic has equal representation well according to its potential.
The political climate in California is likely more conducive to growing organic through various programs such as the healthy soils initiative. Imagine what would happen if just 5% of all agricultural research and 5% of all promotional activity was allocated to California organic. Imagine if 5% of all the food served in state programs was organic.
Organic California is building that road map and setting goals that will make organic food and organic agriculture the prevailing influence in California by 2030.
Lets make that our goal across the U.S. as we envision the future. We can do this!