Quantcast
Food

Organic Food, Not Just for Hippies Anymore: How the U.S. Is Dealing With Growing Demand

An old adage says that solving a big problem requires attacking it from all sides. That is what organic industry players—large and small—are doing to overcome organic crop supply shortages in the U.S. Organic supporters have launched a range of initiatives to increase organic farming acreage—from big company initiatives and smaller company collaborations to a new organic transition certification and long-term contracts to help farmers transition to organic.

These initiatives aim to address a fundamental problem facing the organic industry: while demand for organic food continues to soar, the supply of organic crops to meet that demand is falling short, forcing companies to import organic crops from overseas. Organic food currently accounts for about 5 percent of all food sales in the U.S., but organic farming acres make up less than one percent of total U.S. farmland. The U.S. imported $184 million in organic soybeans and $35 million in organic corn in 2014.

Organic food currently accounts for about 5 percent of all food sales in the U.S., but organic farming acres make up less than one percent of total U.S. farmland.

The supply-demand situation was even worse in 2015, according to Laura Batcha, executive director of the Organic Trade Association (OTA). “The supply shortage is holding back the market; 2015 was the peak of the supply shortage," she said.

"Not Just for Hippies Anymore"

On the bright side, Batcha sees new business coming into the organic market. “Organic certifiers are seeing record months for applications (for organic certification)," she said.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) figures, there were a record number of certified organic operations—19,474—in the U.S. in 2014. OTA reported that there were another 3,000 farms transitioning to organic.

Annie's president John Foraker recently predicted that organic food will ultimately account for 20 percent of the U.S. food market.

Current market conditions are leading many conventional farmers to consider transitioning to organic. “Farmers are taking a second look (at organic) with commodity grain prices being low," Batcha said.

Nate Lewis, OTA's senior crop & livestock specialist, agrees. “There is a tremendous amount of interest from conventional producers who are really looking at organic as an option," he said. “This marks an underlying shift from organic being a four-letter word to being a viable economic option for farmers. It's not just for hippies anymore."

Big Company Organic Initiatives: General Mills and Ardent Mills

Larger companies are putting their resources into increasing organic acres. General Mills recently announced plans to more than double the organic acreage from which it sources ingredients. General Mills plans to meet its goal of 250,000 acres by 2019, the same year the company aims to achieve $1 billion in sales from its natural and organic products.

Since 2009, General Mills has increased the organic acreage it supports by 120 percent and is now among the top five organic ingredient purchasers—and the second largest buyer of organic fruits and vegetables in North America.

Another big player with ambitious organic goals is Ardent Mills, which supplies wheat flours, mixes, blends and specialty products. The company aims to double organic wheat acres in the U.S. from the current 260,000 to 520,000 by 2019.

“About a year ago, we started getting inquiries from our flour customers who wanted to introduce new organic products and were concerned about supply," said Shrene White, Ardent Mills' director of specialty grains risk. “We saw there was a big gap in the supply of organic wheat."

Since announcing their organic initiative last December, Ardent Mills has held farmer education meetings to discuss the project. “We talked to farmers about what they need to transition, what to expect during certification and the market for organic wheat," White said.

The response from farmers has been positive, White says, not only from conventional farmers but also from existing organic farmers who want to add wheat to their crop rotations.

There are challenges for farmers transitioning to organic. “The biggest challenge is educating farmers," White said. “They have to look at a whole new way of farming."

Batcha says initiatives by large companies like General Mills and Ardent Mills are positive. “When big companies make investments in organic acres, it means there is confidence that the market is there and will stay there," she said. “The more relationships there are with producers and end users, the less likely it will be that farmers will come and go in organic."

U.S. Organic Grain Collaboration

In addition to the big company initiatives to increase organic acreage, there is a collaborative effort involving several leading organic companies. The US Organic Grain Collaboration was launched in 2014 to address the supply shortage of organic grains. Participating companies include Annie's, Stonyfield Farm, Organic Valley, Clif Bar, Whole Foods Market, Nature's Path, Grain Millers and Pete & Jerry's Eggs.

“We have a progressive group of companies committed to growing the organic grain supply," said Elizabeth Reaves, program director at the Sustainable Food Lab, which helped facilitate the collaboration.

The fact that companies that normally would compete with each other are working together is unique and necessary, Lewis said. “What's needed is collaboration and relationship building. We all need to come together," he said.

In 2015, the group launched pilot projects in Aroostook County, Maine and in the Northern Great Plains to test approaches needed to grow the supply of organic grain.

This year, group's activities will be coordinated under a new Grain, Pulses and Oilseed council sector within the Organic Trade Association. “It makes sense to coordinate strategy through the existing industry platform of OTA," Reaves said.

Activities planned for this year include creating a strategic plan and holding organic opportunity events in the Pacific Northwest, Northern Great Plains, Midwest and New England for all members of the organic supply chain.

Collaboration member Nature's Path may be taking the most direct route to increasing organic acreage by buying land and converting it to organic. To date the company has purchased 6,600 acres of land in Saskatchewan and Montana to grow organic grains.

Nature's Path, along with Clif Bar, Grain Millers and General Mills, are also members of the Prairie Organic Grain Initiative, a similar collaborative industry effort to increase the supply of organic grains in Canada.

Certified Transition Program

Perhaps the biggest challenge to increasing organic farming acres is the three-year transition farmers must make to become organic. During those three years, a conventional farmer cannot use chemical fertilizers and pesticides and options for farmers to sell their transitional crops are often limited.

OTA is trying to ease that challenge by working with the U.S. Department of Agriculture to create a Certified Transition label program. Certified Transition food and animal feed products will contain ingredients made from crops harvested one year after the transition to organic has begun, but before the three-year transition period is completed.

Lewis says the standard for the Certified Transition program will be submitted to the USDA in early April. Existing organic certifiers will then apply to the USDA to be accredited to certify transitional farms and processing facilities.

Many organic certifiers already have some type of transition program for farmers. These will be harmonized under the USDA program.

Lewis hopes the program will be available to farmers by the end of this year's harvest.

The Certified Transition program offers advantages for both farmers and processors. “This could really help farmers overcome the three-year transition barrier," Lewis said. “For processors, having a transitional market is a way to pull farmers into organic. Instead of dangling the organic carrot (premium) three years down the road, they can dangle one-half of the carrot in one year."

Batcha agrees. “It will help facilitate market connections during the transition period," she said.

Long-Term Contracts Help Farmers

Another incentive to help organic farming grow is for companies to offer long-term contracts to transitioning farmers. Ardent Mills is offering long-term contracts to farmers that cover the transition period and the first few years of organic certification. Clif Bar contracted a conventional fig producer for seven years to produce organic figs, which covered the three-year transition and another four years of organic production. Oregon-based Hummingbird Wholesale has purchased rice, beans and cranberries at premium organic prices from farmers transitioning to organic.

“People that invest in transition want to secure the supply," Batcha said. “It's a different model than conventional farming, which rides the highs and lows of the spot market. An organic farmer with a long-term contract may be passing up a higher price on the spot market but they may also be passing up a lower price."

YOU MIGHT ALSO LIKE

Can Cuba Supply America's Growing Appetite for Organic Food?

6 Millennials Fight for the Title of 'America's Best Yardfarmer'

Is Growing Your Own Food the Only Way to Truly Be Vegetarian or Vegan?

Big Food Says They Will Label GMOs … But Is There More to the Story?

Show Comments ()

EcoWatch Daily Newsletter

Sponsored
Climate
A deer stands in the remains of a home destroyed by the Camp Fire. JOSH EDELSON / AFP / Getty Images

63 Dead, 631 Missing in Deadliest, Most Destructive Fire in California History

The death toll from the catastrophic Camp Fire—by far the deadliest and most destructive fire in California history—has now risen to 63, with 631 people still unaccounted for, the Huffington Post reported Friday.

The Butte County Sheriff's Office announced on Thursday that the death toll had risen from Wednesday's figure of 56 after the remains of seven more people were discovered in the wreckage.

Keep reading... Show less
Popular
Westend61 / Getty Images

EcoWatch Gratitude Photo Contest: Submit Now!

EcoWatch is pleased to announce its first photo contest! Show us what in nature you are most thankful for this Thanksgiving. Whether you have a love for oceans, animals, or parks, we want to see your best photos that capture what you love about this planet.

Keep reading... Show less
Health
A smoky haze obstructs the view of the San Francisco skyline on Aug. 24 in San Francisco, California. Justin Sullivan / Getty Images

Smoke Is a Big Health Risk as California Wildfires Rage On

By Nneka Leiba

Deadly wildfires continue to blaze in Northern and Southern California. Dozens of people are dead, hundreds more missing and entire communities have been destroyed.

Keep reading... Show less
Health
Leela Cyd / Photolibrary / Getty Images

EPA Finds Replacements for Toxic 'Teflon' Chemicals Toxic

By Anna Reade

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has released draft toxicity assessments for GenX chemicals and PFBS, both members of a larger group of chemicals known as per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS). GenX and PFBS are being used as replacement chemicals for PFOA and PFOS, the original Teflon chemicals that were forced off the market due to their decades-long persistence in the environment and their link to serious health harms in exposed people and wildlife.

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored
Science
Demonstrators at the Earth Day March for Science Rally on April 22, 2017 in Washington, DC. Paul Morigi / Getty Images

New Report Details Trump's Destructive War on Science—And How the New Congress Can Fight Back

By Jessica Corbett

A coalition of watchdog and advocacy organizations on Thursday released a new report detailing the Trump administration's nearly two-year war on science and how Congress can fight back.

Produced by 16 groups including the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), Defenders of Wildlife and Greenpeace, Protecting Science at Federal Agencies: How Congress Can Help argues that while "scientific integrity at federal agencies has eroded" under President Donald Trump, "Congress has the power to halt and repair damage from federal agencies' current disregard for scientific evidence."

Keep reading... Show less
Popular
Downtown Houston surrounded by flooding and mist after Hurricane Harvey. Prairie Pictures / The Image Bank / Getty Images

Houston’s Tall Buildings and Concrete Sprawl Made Harvey’s Rain and Flooding Worse

The science is clear that in order to prevent more extreme weather events like hurricanes, we need to stop burning fossil fuels. Thursday, EcoWatch reported on a study that found major hurricanes in the past decade were made five to 10 percent wetter because of global warming, and another study last year calculated that the record rainfall that flooded Texas during Hurricane Harvey was made three times more likely due to climate change.

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored
Health
Roundup for sale at a hardware store in San Rafael, CA, on July, 9. JOSH EDELSON / AFP / Getty Images

Second CA Glyphosate Trial Scheduled for Elderly Couple in Declining Health

The first trial claiming long-term use of Monsanto's Roundup weedkiller caused the plaintiff's cancer ended with a $289 million jury verdict in favor of the plaintiff, though that was later reduced by a judge to $78 million.

Now, Monsanto's next date in the judgment seat in California has been set for March 18.

Keep reading... Show less
Climate
Sea ice in the Arctic Ocean. NASA

Not Enough Ice to Drill the Arctic! Offshore Oil Drilling a 'Disaster Waiting to Happen'

Last month, the Trump administration approved the first offshore oil drilling development in federal Arctic waters, which environmentalists fear will ramp up carbon pollution that fuels climate change.

But here's the ultimate irony: Hilcorp Alaska's project—which involves building a 9-acre artificial drilling island in the shallow waters of the Beaufort Sea—has been delayed because of the effects of climate change, Alaska Public Media reported.

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored

mail-copy

The best of EcoWatch, right in your inbox. Sign up for our email newsletter!