By Laura Batcha, Executive Director and CEO of the Organic Trade Association (OTA)
As more and more world attention focuses on threats from global warming and its impact on agriculture, organic production practices and principles are providing hope to an environmentally challenged planet.
Studies continue to mount showing that organic farms are able to support more species biodiversity than their conventional counterparts. In fact, in one of the latest studies, researchers from the United Kingdom, Sweden and Switzerland published findings in 2014 in the Journal of Applied Ecology showing that different agricultural methods affect the diversity of life on farms. Their research found that on average, organic farms support 34 percent more plant, insect and animal species than conventional farms. In addition, organic farms had 50 percent high diversity in pollinator species such as bees.
“Organic methods could go some way towards halting the continued loss of diversity in industrialized nations,” according to Sean Tuck of Oxford University’s Department of Plant Science, lead author of the study.
For farmers who diligently work the earth using organic practices—starting with rejuvenating and building healthy soils, this is not news. However, it is a message that they desire consumers, agricultural agents, and policymakers to comprehend.
Market Continues to Expand
The U.S. market for organic products, both food and non-food, totaled $35.1 billion in 2013, up 11.5 percent from 2012 sales and more than four times the $8.4 billion recorded in 2002, the year U.S. national organic standards were implemented. Currently, consumers may purchase organic products in most mainstream grocery stores throughout the country, at convenience and club stores, at farmers’ markets, through Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) operations, in natural and health food stores and co-ops, in a growing number of eating establishments, online, at food trucks, and through home delivery.
Growth in organic product sales continues to outpace total sales of comparable conventional food and non-food items, which grew a total of only 3 percent in 2013, down from the 4 percent growth posted in 2012. Accounting for 92 percent of the organic market, organic food sales grew over 11 percent last year, while conventional food sales only experienced a growth of 3 percent. The growth of organic non-food sales also continues to outpace the conventional non-food market, with organic growing at 13 percent while conventional only increased 3 percent.
Organic fruits and vegetables continue to lead organic sales, totaling $11.5 billion in 2013. Of that figure, $10.5 billion was spent on fresh produce. The $4.9 billion organic dairy category is the second largest after fruits and vegetables. Also notable, organic snack foods, including cookies, crackers, chips, and nuts, grew by 15 percent in 2013.
There is still much room for growth for the organic sector, as organic food and beverage sales currently represent less than 5 percent of total food sales in the United States. However, already, some organic food categories far surpass that percent. For instance, 23 percent of carrots and 21 percent of salads sold in grocery stores are organic.
Meanwhile, the market share of organic sheets, cosmetics, flowers, dog treats, and other non-food items has almost doubled over the past decade.
Figures released by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) in March show that the organic industry continues to grow both domestically and globally, with over 25,000 certified organic operations in more than 120 countries around the world.
Domestically, 18,513 organic farms and processing facilities were certified to USDA organic regulations in 2013. According to the National Organic Program (NOP), that figure represents nearly a 245 percent increase since NOP’s tracking began in 2002, and up by 4.2 percent from 2012 with the addition of 763 producers in 2013.
NOP statistics reveal there are certified organic operations in all regions of the United States. However, operations are more highly concentrated on the West Coast, in New England, and in the upper Midwest. California and Indiana saw the largest increase in the number of certified organic operations in 2013.
“Consumer demand for organic products has grown exponentially over the past decade. With retail sales valued at $35 billion last year, the organic industry represents a tremendous economic opportunity for farmers, ranchers and rural communities,” said U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack. He added, “New support in the 2014 Farm Bill will enhance USDA’s efforts to help producers and small business tap into this market, and support organic agriculture as it continues to grow and thrive.”
Released in early May by USDA, the results of the 2012 U.S. Census of Agriculture showed there were 12,771 organic farms certified to national organic standards in 2012, with an additional 3,754 organic farms exempt from certification because they sell less than $5,000 worth of organic products annually. The census also reported 3,240 additional farms in transition to organic certification. U.S. organic farm sales have grown 82 percent in five years, with dairy farms accounting for 25 percent of all organic farm-gate sales. Meanwhile, data collected by USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS) in its 2011 Certified Organic Production Survey showed 81 percent of organic production goes into the wholesale value chain.
Still, to meet increasing consumer demand, there is a need for many more farmers to go organic. A major challenge for the sector is to significantly add organic acreage and production to meet current— and projected —demand.
Meanwhile, in the past three years, the United States has signed three international organic trade agreements, expanding options for U.S. organic companies to export U.S. organic products to Canada, the European Union, and Japan, while clearing the way for organic products from these three regions to freely enter the United States.
Growing Consumer Interest
Eco-consciousness is a growing movement among U.S. families, with choosing organic foods becoming increasingly part of families’ efforts to take better care of themselves and the planet, according to findings from OTA’s U.S. Families’ Organic Attitudes & Beliefs 2014 tracking study conducted through a partnership with KIWI Magazine.
Currently, 81 percent of U.S. families report they have purchased organic products at least sometimes within the past two years. The primary reason organic buyers cite for choosing organic foods is to make healthier choices for themselves and their families. One-third say they choose organic foods because they are concerned about the effects of pesticides, hormones and antibiotics on their children. In fact, children are often the driving force behind parents’ decision to purchase organic foods.
Nine in ten parents who buy “kids foods” say they choose organic versions at least sometimes, second only to fruits and vegetables (96 percent). In addition, 86 percent who buy baby food choose organic at least sometimes, with 34 percent saying they always do. Also, research shows that 74 percent of daycares now offer organic options for children.
Among its many roles, the Organic Trade Association is dedicated to protecting the integrity of the USDA Organic seal to give consumers a choice they want. Consumers’ recognition of this seal, in fact, is growing. According to surveys, familiarity of the USA Organic label ranks among the top three seals for consumers, following on the heels of the Better Business Bureau and Good Housekeeping seals.
Conveying Organic = Non-GMO Plus
Meanwhile, one of the hallmarks of being certified organic by NOP is that organic products may not be produced or handled using genetically modified organisms (GMOs). As concern has grown over the presence of GMOs in foods and in our environment, more and more consumers are choosing organic products as the way to avoid this exposure.
OTA’s U.S. Families’ Organic Attitudes & Beliefs 2014 Tracking Study, for instance, confirms that buying organic foods in order to avoid genetic modification is important to organic buyers.
Regardless of their organic buying experience, 43 percent of organic buyers feel that buying organic products in order to avoid genetic modification/engineering or bioengineering” is “extremely important.” An additional 43 percent, on average, feel it is a “very important reason.”
OTA, through its recently convened Organic = Non-GMO Plus Task Force, is actively working to reinforce consumer understanding that to be organic means – among other things – to be non-GMO. In order to ensure that organic certification and corresponding NOP certified labels remain the gold standard and to further communicate the benefits of organic, the task force is creating communications resources designed to help suppliers and retailers further understand the organic label and the GMO prevention practices required under NOP. Some, for instance, do not understand that with the use of GMOs prohibited in all organic products, all ingredients—organic and non-organic, minor ingredients such as flavors, yeast and corn starch contained in the products—in all organic label categories must be produced without genetic engineering. Thus, the organic label alone provides non-GMO choice.
In addition, only organic products offer a full suite of benefits that consumers are seeking:
• Environmental stewardship through building healthy soils and promoting biodiversity
• Promotion of public health and the health of the environment by prohibiting the use of toxic and pervasive pesticides and petroleum-based fertilizers
• Animals raised organically must not be treated with antibiotics or growth hormones, and must be fed only organic feed
• Some organic foods have more beneficial nutrients, including antioxidants, than their conventional counterparts
• Processed organic products are produced under strict certification standards and must not contain artificial preservatives, colorings or flavor, and ionizing radiation is prohibited.
Now more than ever, organic agricultural practices are needed on more acres to address significant environmental challenges for our planet. More and more consumers already understand that fact. The challenge that we face is encouraging more farmers—both domestically and throughout our globe—to convert to organic to make our food production more sustainable.
For more information on OTA go to www.ota.com
Article By Laura Batcha, Executive Director and CEO of the Organic Trade Association (OTA)