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Daily News Blog

01
Dec

Growth in Organic Underscores Need for Stronger Standards, Increased Consumer Advocacy and Government Support

(Beyond Pesticides, December 1, 2020) The market for certified organic products is thriving, according to the 2019 Organic Survey recently released by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).  Between 2008 and 2019, sales of organic products tripled. As more and more farmers and consumers see the benefits of switching to organic, advocates say it is critically important to protect and strengthen the standards behind the organic seal. Only an engaged public will be successful in pushing back against attempts by the agrichemical industry to undermine organic integrity.

USDA’s 2019 Organic Survey is part of the 2017 Census on Agriculture, receiving information from every farmer who indicated they are certified or were transitioning to organic production. In total, USDA recorded 16,585 farms, up 17% from the last survey taken in 2016. Organic sales are also up 31%, to nearly $10 billion annually. The percentage of farmland under organic production increased a modest 9%.  

California continues to be the state with the largest organic industry activity, with over a third of sales ($3.6 billion, or 36%) occurring there. Washington and Pennsylvania follow behind California, but it would take the next eight states combined to match California’s contribution to organic sales. It is also the state with the largest land under organic production, at 965,000 acres, with Alaska, Montana, and New York behind each with over 300,000 acres of organic certified farmland.

When asked about future plans, 44% of farms planned to maintain current levels of production, 29% planned an increase, and 20% were uncertain. Only 4% planned to decrease production, and fewer still planned to stop production entirely.

Milk, eggs, and broiler chickens are the top organic commodities, with sales of broiler chickens increasing by nearly 50% since 2016. While this growth, including the elimination of toxic pesticides, is encouraging for organic advocates, they note that increased public accountability on organic standards setting is needed. Public watchdog groups have conducted high-profile investigations into certain “organic” dairies, finding conditions similar to factory farms.  And the Trump Administration has been trying to make it easier for factory egg and poultry farms to get organic certification.

These practices are most damaging for small-to-mid level producers that not only follow, but often go beyond minimum organic standards on their farms. The toxic industrial agriculture model of agrichemical companies applied to organic is said to hurt the integrity of the organic products and the USDA organic seal.

In the context of these shortcomings, it is important to note that these problems can be fixed through the organic standard setting process. Organic law (The Organic Foods Production Act) was established with the goal of ‘continuous improvement.’ This means that certain products allowed for use today may not be permitted five years later, when they are reviewed by a board of independent stakeholders known as the National Organic Standards Board. These experts conduct in-depth, technical reviews of allowed substances, considering environmental effects, compatibility with organic systems (including soil biology), and essentiality (is it needed –so even those substances that meet the first two criteria is not permitted if it determined that it really is not needed—a truly precautionary approach).

The high level of scrutiny and expert work involved in establishing organic standards are constantly under attack by the agrichemical industry, which aims to message to the public that organic is just as problematic as the chemical-laden foods they produce. Beware of “skeptic” websites that claim organic pesticides are more hazardous than their conventional counterparts, and that organic production cannot feed the world (Beyond Pesticides as responded to those claims in the Mail section of our newsletter here and here). These individuals claim to be ‘experts,’ but following the money will usually reveal them to be backed by an industry think tank like the Heartland Institute, which has a history of climate change denial, among a range of other highly problematic scientific stances. In many cases, efforts by agrichemical companies to weaken organic standards turn around to become the very same arguments they will use to undermine public trust in organic.

The data speak for itself. Studies show a myriad of benefits from organic on the big three bottom line issues—public health, the environment, and the economy. Just last week, a new study found that eating organic lowers one’s risk of developing type 2 diabetes. Organic food is healthier, with organic dairy and meat have containing higher levels of essential nutrients, and organic tomatoes with higher levels of flavonoid antioxidants. Organic production prohibits the use of fossil-fuel based synthetic fertilizers, and can help sequester atmospheric carbon in the soil.  In fact, the on-farm soil practices organic farms employ has many add-on benefits, including higher productivity, water and nutrient retention, and improved pest management. Farming organically can improve the economic outlook for local, rural economies, with a 2016 report finding median household income increasing $2,000 on average and poverty rates lower by 1.3% when comparing U.S. counties with high levels of organic activity to those nearby.

“With increased adoption of organic agriculture, we will see the need for pest management products reduce, create greater plant resiliency, improve moisture retention in the soil, prevent nutrient runoff into waterways, and sequester carbon in the soil—helping to mitigate the climate crisis,” said Jay Feldman, executive director of Beyond Pesticides.

While the results of the 2019 Organic Survey are encouraging, organic is still a relatively new market that should be prioritized and strengthened within the next Administration. Join us in telling President-elect Biden that we need an organic USDA, committed to transition chemical-intensive agriculture to organic practices.

All unattributed positions and opinions in this piece are those of Beyond Pesticides.

Source: USDA Media Release

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