Organic Demand On the Rise—Can Farmers Keep Up?

Consumers seemingly can't get enough organic, farmers aren't producing enough organic, and consumer-advocacy groups are questioning the organic label's integrity.

by Dani Yokhna

Organic Demand On the Rise—Can Farmers Keep Up? - Photo by Gabriel Jorby ( 

If organic food could be voted Homecoming King, it seems like it would take home the crown. Reports from the Organic Trade Association and the USDA show organic consumption and production is up. Consumption, though, is outpacing production, driving the U.S. to import more organic food, which might not necessarily be the best thing. And while the USDA is seeking new members for its National Organic Standards Board, industry groups are suing the agency for crummy rule-making policies.

There are now 19,474 certified-organic operations in the U.S., a 5 percent increase in the past year and more-than 250 percent increase since 2002, when the National Organic Program was started. This increase in farmers isn’t enough to keep up with the increase in organic-product demand. The U.S. saw an 11.3 percent increase in the sale of organic products (food and nonfood) between 2013 and 2014. That’s $39.1 billion in sales and doesn’t include the mom-and-pop growers who stand by nonsynthetic means of production but aren’t certified. This growth is happening across the country, too: 68 to almost 80 percent of households in southern states are buying organic, and nearly 90 percent of households on the West Coast and in New England shell out for organic. Organic now has almost 5 percent of the market share of food sales, and 12 percent of all produce sold in this country is organic.

Because of this rapid evolution, not all of the organic products found here are of U.S. origin. Organic corn and soybeans, in particular, are being imported for livestock feed. Clearly, the demand is present, and with organic corn selling for more than triple the price of nonorganic corn, more U.S. farmers might start taking advantage of the market.

I see the impact of organic consumption outpacing production every day. It’s incredibly difficult to get even non-genetically modified livestock feed where I live in rural Kentucky, let alone Certified Organic grains. Think about the give and take of this situation: Part of the drive behind organic production is a lower environmental impact. If we’re shipping corn from Romania, Turkey, the Netherlands, Canada, Argentina and India to feed our organic livestock, we’re not doing the environmental footprint of our food any favors. There’s a trade-off.

“Organic” Isn’t Perfect

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It’s possible that even with all of this consumer support, the organic label isn’t what it was meant to be. There are two pending lawsuits against the USDA National Organic Program regarding changes made to organic-standards rules without due process.

The first suit was filed by the Center for Food Safety earlier this month, stating the federal rule-making process was violated when the USDA changed established procedures for permitting substances used in producing organic food. Specifically, the USDA eliminated a “sunset provision,” which requires all materials to cycle off the National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances every five years unless the National Organic Standards Board votes by a two-thirds majority to relist them based on public input, new science and available alternatives. Now, materials can remain on the list without any safety review unless the NOSB takes the initiative to vote it off the list. This major policy change was made without a public comment period—I’m guessing because the public would be pretty upset about a policy change like this and likely wouldn’t agree to it.

The second suit, filed a week after the first, has CFS, the Center for Environmental Health and Beyond Pesticides challenging the NOP’s failure to follow the law in making another big organic-standards rule change: Producers can use compost that has been treated with synthetic pesticides. (Is this still organic that we’re talking about here?)

Now that there are two major rules being changed by the USDA without further input, there’s a definite pattern emerging. While I’m not one for litigation, these are not unreasonable lawsuits. Consumers and producers need to know the NOP standards are being upheld and are consistently monitored. Changing them willy-nilly like this decreases everyone’s confidence in the national organic label.

Think You Can Do Better?

The USDA has put out a call for new members of the National Organic Standards Board. This board recommends whether substances should be allowed or prohibited in organic production or handling, assists in developing standards for substances used in organic production, and advises the secretary of agriculture about organic regulations.

There are five spots open on the 15-member board: two for farmers, two for consumer/public-interest representatives and one for a USDA-accredited certifying agent. If chosen, you’ll have a five-year term that starts Jan. 24, 2016. You have until May 15, 2015, to submit a written nomination, including a cover letter, résumé and required form, plus any endorsements or letters of recommendations you want to include. Send it to Rita Meade, USDA–AMS–NOP, 1400 Independence Ave., SW., Room 2648–S, Ag Stop 0268, Washington, D.C. 20250. You can contact Meade at 202-720-3252 or with questions.

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