The state of the organic industry is thriving, filled with opportunities on a host of fronts but faced with challenges on many, said Organic Trade Association Executive Director and CEO Laura Batcha at the Natural Products Expo East trade show in Baltimore on Thursday.
"The increased amount of organic in our stores is a testament that organic is here to stay," Batcha told a capacity crowd at the keynote session of OTA's All Things Organic conference, the association's two-day educational conference held during the trade show.
But Batcha noted that organic acreage and production in the United States have not kept up with the growth in organic demand. "How to close the gap between organic production growth and the growth in the industry is the challenge of the next decade if we want our industry to remain successful," she pointed out.
Batcha was part of a panel discussion on the current and future state of organic. Moderated by Sam Fromartz, author and editor-in-chief of Food & Environment Reporting Network, the panel also included Ken Cook, president and cofounder for the Environmental Working Group, and Doug Crabtree, farmer and co-owner of organic Vilicus Farms in Montana and recipient of OTA's 2014 Farmer of the Year Award.
Crabtree expressed concern that there are not enough organic farmers in the U.S., and observed that it is difficult to attract and keep new organic farmers without a good federal support system for organic that is more in line with what is available to conventional farmers.
In addition to rising consumer demand and the challenge of acres not being converted to organic quickly enough, how big box retailers like Walmart and Kroger are transforming the organic industry and persistent questions and confusion over the real meaning of organic and the integrity of organic standards were also addressed by the panelists.
The panelists welcomed the increasing availability of organic products in major retail outlets. Crabtree commented, "The more organic the better. Organic is good for soil health, organic is good for rural communities. Organic is good for farmers and consumers. I can't see anything negative about expanding organic."
"The (food) system is moving in the direction of organic," said Ken Cook. Cook cited health concerns as a major driver in organic growth, and said more people are becoming aware of some of the health and environmental concerns associated with the practices of conventional agriculture.
The U.S. organic industry has grown by leaps and bounds in the past two decades. Once barely a niche in the big food sector, organic sales in the United States broke a new record of over $35 billion in 2013. More than 80 percent of families in the U.S. now buy organic products sometimes. The USDA Organic Seal now ranks up with the Good Housekeeping seal of approval and the Better Business Bureau seal as one of the most trusted assurances of quality and integrity.
As consumer appreciation of organic grows, however, confusion over competing food labels and skepticism about the strength of the standards for certified organic products are also playing a role in today's marketplace, the panelists said.
The industry is proud of what the organic sector has done to keep the national organic standards, implemented by the U.S. Department of Agriculture in 2002, strong over the years, Batcha said. "Organic standards are stronger than ever. Every major regulatory action since the implementation of the standards has been to strengthen the standards," she said.
Just since 2008, Batcha pointed out, six synthetic substances have been added to the National Organic Standard Board's National List of allowable synthetics for organic crop growers, livestock producers and processors, while 44 have either been removed from the list, or denied from being placed on the list.
Before the panel discussion, Anne Alonzo, Administrator of USDA's Agricultural Marketing Service, addressed the crowd and stressed the growing importance of the organic sector to officials at USDA. "The organic sector is very important to us; we are partners and we're going to be working even more with you going forward," Alonzo said.
Friday's "All Things Organic" conference featured sessions on the global organic market, and export opportunities for the U.S. organic industry.