The organic industry is young—a mere teenager, considering the term organic has only been regulated by the US Department of Agriculture for fourteen years. Like everything in its youth, the organic industry is experiencing rapid changes in short periods of time. Indeed, since our last in-depth Organic Report in 2011, there have been dramatic changes for the organic industry—fortunately most of them positive.
Due to ever-increasing public awareness of food-related health issues, publicity surrounding GMO labeling initiatives, and the national expansion of local food connections, including farmers’ markets, public demand for real food is at an all-time high.
To get a firm grasp on exactly where we stand in our quest for a transparent, less toxic and truly nutritional food system, we sat down with three leading experts in organic and real food production. Common to each of these individuals is a true passion for a sustainably better world.
Our Panel of Experts
Laura Batcha is executive vice-president and interim co–executive director of the Organic Trade Association (OTA), a membership-based business association for the organic industry in North America. Laura is in her sixth year with the OTA but has been intensely involved with organic food and farming for nearly twenty-five years. Prior to coming to the OTA, Laura owned and operated a certified organic farming and handling enterprise and spent ten years in grassroots strategic planning and development with Tom’s of Maine. Up until a year ago she also owned and operated her own organic farm in Vermont.
“Organic is important to me because I think it’s a better way to grow food and a better way to eat food,” Laura told Organic Connections. “It’s a significant, viable option for transforming agricultural landscape practices and communities. Organic is a huge opportunity in terms of entrepreneurship, in which I’m a big believer; I love business and the free market. It creates a great opportunity when an industry can be built on consumers choosing something.”
Lisa Bunin is the organic policy director with the Center for Food Safety (CFS). CFS is a national public interest organization, working to protect human health and the environment by curbing the use of harmful food production technologies and by promoting organic and sustainable agriculture. Now in her eighth year with CFS, Lisa has been working on organic and environmental issues for decades, internationally, nationally and locally. She holds a PhD in environmental sociology and has taught college courses on global and national environmental policy and social movements. Lisa served as NGO delegate to the UN’s London Dumping Convention, where she partnered with governments and NGOs to successfully halt the burning of toxic waste at sea, globally. In the US, she helped bring the first certified organic cotton clothing to market. More locally, Lisa was instrumental in securing a Santa Cruz County–wide moratorium on the planting of genetically engineered crops.
“I want to support a system of production that is consistent with my own personal values of land stewardship,” Lisa told Organic Connections. “Organic practices build living soils, protect biological diversity, conserve water and energy, and can even help mitigate climate change.
“I believe that organic food is more healthful than food produced using conventional, chemical-intensive methods, because it does not rely upon synthetic toxic chemicals, synthetic fertilizers, GMOs, sewage sludge or irradiation. It’s a healthier system of production and truly the only way forward to feed our nation and the world in a sustainable way.”
Dan Kittredge is founder and president of the Bionutrient Food Association (BFA). BFA is a national association of voting members who advocate for vital soils, nourishing food and healthy people. The essence of Dan’s work is in growing produce that is consistently high in nutrient content and exporting his findings to farmers and food producers everywhere. Dan is a second-generation organic farmer, has personally trained thousands of farmers, and also maintains his own twenty-four-acre farm.
“We’re talking about a living system,” Dan told Organic Connections. “The real essence of what we’re trying to do is remove the limiting factors in that living system. If we assume that the genetic potential of our crops is far beyond what we experience—which is what the geneticists will tell us—then the simple objective is to remove the stresses to our plants that are keeping them from fulfilling their full potential. There are a number of components to this living soil system. What we’re trying to do is lay out the normal stumbling blocks and limiting factors, help people understand them, and give people the tools to address them.”
The big questions about organics
In providing a “state of the union” for the organic industry, we put some key questions to our panel of experts. Their answers illuminate the issues we still face and which must be overcome, as well as the goals that are now well within our grasp.
Is there just a small segment of health-conscious people interested in organic products, or is consumer awareness broadening?
Laura Batcha: Organic sales grew above 10 percent as a whole in 2013, which was the same as the previous year. The total market is hovering in the area of $33 billion a year.
But interestingly, in our yearly consumer attitudes and belief survey, we found that there are upwards of 80 percent of families in the United States that report purchasing organic products. That doesn’t mean that they’re purchasing a lot or all the time; but in US households with children living in the home, 80 percent of them are reporting that they’re participating somehow in that market. That’s up from the year before, and it’s up from about 72 percent from four years ago when we started the survey. So, more and more folks are coming into the market.
Dan Kittredge: There is absolutely no question that awareness around food, the importance of food and the quality of food, is increasing exponentially. I attribute this growth in understanding to the fact that for the past three generations or so we have been moving away from the land, and eating processed food. Industrial ag has come in and the relative nutrient levels in our foods have dropped off dramatically. If you understand the science of epigenetics [the study of the process through which genetic information is translated into the substance and behavior of an organism], you understand that it takes two or three generations to wear out the DNA. So with pigs or with tomatoes, if you have two or three generations of bad nutrition, you get weak genetics and susceptibility to infestation and disease. This situation has now translated to people: in our society we have an absolutely epidemic level of disease that’s systemically degenerative and has at its root food quality as the cause and the solution. We’re in an information age; it’s a simple fact and it’s getting out.
Can organic producers keep up with increasing demand?
Lisa Bunin: To increase organic acreage we need new farmers, and we need existing farmers to add more acreage. This has been made more difficult by our Congress, which has been cutting organic programs, research, and subsidies for organic certification. Those kinds of aids really encourage new farmers to become certified. There are a lot of smaller farmers that aren’t certifying, largely due to costs associated with certification. Unfortunately, the organic certification cost-share program, which subsidizes certification, and the organic agriculture research and extension initiative (OREI)—the nation’s largest source of organic research and education funding—were parts of the Farm Bill that have been cut. I think they are essential programs that need to be restored.
On the other hand, there is a tremendous opportunity opening before us. By 2030 there are about a half million farmers who are projected to retire; that’s almost a quarter of the US’s entire farming community. This is worrying—but it presents an opportunity for change. For young people who have the energy and the drive, it is an opporunity to be on the land and be supporting their families with good, healthy food. They would also be supporting their communities and the rural, urban and suburban economies with organic food. That would be a great way forward
Dan Kittredge: The real demand is a demand for quality and nutrition; that is what people are struggling to name and identify. The first thing that we’re doing—and have been successful in for several years—is giving the growers the skill sets to produce that quality.
Our ultimate goal is getting soil and crop nutrient levels up to the point where we are actually able to heal ourselves through our food. Along with this come the numerous benefits of high-quality food production, such as carbon sequestration, no toxic chemical runoff and no chemical fertilizers. We don’t need such chemicals, and we’ll economically give the farmers the tools to not have to purchase them. That’s the systemic way of removing the cash flow from agribusiness, which is being used to buy the senators who are then used to write the Farm Bill. If we can increase quality in the food supply, there are many, many positive corollaries that go up and down the entire cultural chain.
Are more farms going organic?
Laura Batcha: There are about 15,000 organic farms, which would include ranch, livestock operations, crop production—all types of farms. In several areas in the last few years, the total number of acres has dipped in some regards, particularly in corn and soy. But data just came out of USDA that shows total acreage continuing to rise, fairly significantly. The most recent data they have is from 2010 to 2011, and total organic acreage rose from 4,371,296 in 2010 to 5,383,119 in 2011.
Lisa Bunin: Certainly I can say that there are increases within the organic farming community. I’m president of the Ecological Farming Association (EFA) Board, and what we see is a tremendous amount of increasing interest among young people in particular to grow organically. The challenges are getting access to land and access to credit. That said, from the Center for Food Safety perspective we see as an absolute necessity organic becoming the foundation of food and agricultural production systems across the United States. That’s our vision and that’s our goal.
Farmers’ markets are growing and are increasingly popular. Many of the farmers are not certified organic but don’t use chemicals or toxic sprays. How do these farmers fit in with the organic movement, or do they?
Laura Batcha: The trend of interest in local food is absolutely tied to the trend in organic food. For the consumer they’re both coming from the same desire, which is to know more about how the food is produced and be more in touch with it. The small farmers and direct-to-consumer short supply chains are very important to the organic industry as a whole, and in many ways it’s how the consumer has the opportunity to interact with farmers and get the freshest local food available. So it’s super important.
Lisa Bunin: These farmers certainly fit into the trend; they’re part of our communities. A lot of organic is built on transparency and personal relationships. They’re an important part of our movement. Of course I want to see people become certified, because we know that then they’re absolutely adhering to the standard set forth in the Organic Food Production Act of 1990; but we understand that some people can’t afford the fee. That’s why I’m advocating that the government-funded organic certification cost-share program be reinvigorated.
How much of a danger do GMO crops pose to organic produce?
Lisa Bunin: The GMO issue is a problem, and it will become an increasing problem for organic farmers and food producers if the USDA continues to fail to take action to prevent GMO contamination. It’s really been turning a blind eye.
The USDA has proposed a “strategy of coexistence” between GMO and non-GMO farmers*—but this strategy does nothing to prevent contamination. GMOs cannot coexist with organic and other non-GMO forms of agriculture in the absence of mandatory contamination prevention strategies and regulations. Even though USDA’s stated role is to facilitate fair farming for all, its actions through its promotion of this coexistence program allow the perpetuation of contamination.
Right now the government-driven GMO conversation is largely pivoting around getting non-GMO farmers to take out insurance to protect themselves against contamination. The government is arguing that the victim should be responsible for insuring themselves against contamination rather than putting the liability for contamination and contamination prevention back on the patent owner, where it belongs.
Until contamination prevention measures are put in place, the CFS believes that a moratorium on the approval of all new GMO crops must be instituted to prevent further contamination and to allow for fair farming, including organic.
Dan Kittredge: From an economic standpoint we will beat Monsanto because we will beat that GMO model; farmers will make more money doing things our way than they will growing GM crops. Since they’re not natural, GM crops won’t grow as well in healthy soil. If we actually have a market standard built around quality, and consumers are able to determine high and low quality, then all of a sudden farmers producing GMO crops are vulnerable because they produce low quality.
What is going to happen with organics in the next one to five years?
Laura Batcha: We’ll continue to see strong growth and a lot of innovation in the marketplace and new product launches. I also think we’ll see a continued expansion of international markets; a lot of US growers, ranchers, processors and handlers are looking to export markets as well because there’s high interest around the world in US organic products.
Lisa Bunin: Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack stated that he wanted to see an increase of organic operations by 20 percent during his tenure. This statement needs to be backed by action, such as strong policy initiatives. He actually needs to take to the halls of Congress and fight for more money and increased program support for organic research; money to subsidize transition to organic; low-cost loans for small or medium and new farmers; new programs; and help with ag land preservation. Ag land is being quickly converted to different types of development, and we really need to preserve it so that we have enough fertile land to feed our nation and beyond.
Dan Kittredge: To quote Dr. Don Huber, Professor Emeritus of Plant Pathology at Purdue University: “We’re going to look back in five years and not even recognize where we were.” The transition is occurring dramatically behind the scenes. Companies like Dole and major multinationals have seen enough data and they understand that they will make more money growing healthier plants; they’ll have higher productivity and lower production cost. The alternatives to Monsanto are exploding right now in consultants, agronomy and suppliers. I think in five years the amount of transition that will have occurred is going to be dramatic, and we’re really at the cusp of that which we want to see.
*The USDA established a committee in 2003 to examine the long-term impacts of biotechnology. Recently this committee has been charged by Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack to “develop practical recommendations for strengthening coexistence among different agricultural production methods.” One of the recommendations being discussed is that non-GMO farmers pay for insurance against GMO contamination.