Worries about contamination from genetically modified crops cast a shadow on otherwise sunny reports of a strong market for organic crops, according to a survey published last month by the Organic Farming Research Foundation.
The survey of U.S. certified organic farmers found 44 percent of its 1,034 respondents reported expansions in their market, and 33 percent reported steady markets. Forty-one percent said they obtained premiums on 100 percent of their products. About one-fourth of the respondents reported an increase in prices received for their organic products, and more than half said their prices were holding steady.
But the survey also found that contamination from crops in neighboring fields that contain genetically modified organisms is a growing concern for organic farmers who want to receive the full organic premium for their crops.
"We believe GMOs are a major issue," said Erica Walz, a spokeswoman for OFRF.
Walz explained that farmers sometimes have to change the parcel of land they farm on because of possible contamination. Farmers also have been forced to change the timing of their planting to avoid contamination. This can mean losing their good-weather window for planting, which could even mean losing an entire crop, said Walz.
"It places them at a disadvantage in the marketplace," said Walz. "Buyers are very leery of buying products from areas where GMOs are predominant."
Juli Brussell, an organic grain farmer in Illinois, and an OFRF board member, said even if farmers adhere to organic standards, GMO contamination can still occur due to wind or insect pollination. When that happens, there's no guarantee farmers will receive an organic price premium for their crops.
"It's just one more factor to deal with for (farmers) who are beginning to think maybe it's not worth the hassle," said Brussell.
Retailers and consumers can help convince farmers it is worth the hassle by supporting organic farmers, whether by lobbying for stronger laws to protect organic crops or showing their willingness to pay the premium for food that is organic and non-contaminated.
Retailers can further support the organic industry by educating consumers about where their food comes from, thereby closing the gap between the consumers and the farmers. "In the grain and bean industry, we don't have the face-to-face connection with consumers," Brussell said. "The retailer plays a very critical role."
"Retailers need to talk about the farmers, said Brussell. "To the people who eat these ? products, we need to say, 'Remember the farmer behind this.'"