Organic Imports Continue to Rise Alongside Organic Demand
By Colin O'Neil
Organic farming remains a bright spot in American agriculture. The price premiums enjoyed by organic farmers for many staple commodities like soybeans and corn remain higher than conventional prices. Meanwhile, studies show that organic farming practices can improve water quality in areas of the Midwest most at risk from agricultural runoff.
At the same time, organic foods can have higher levels of antioxidants and beneficial nutrients, and recent research found that an organic diet significantly lowered concentrations of two neurotoxic organophosphate pesticides in children.
As a result, the organic sector in the U.S. has seen tremendous growth.
In less than two decades, sales in the organic sector have grown from $3.7 billion in 1997 to more than $46 billion in 2016. Organic food sales now account for more than 5 percent of total U.S. food sales.
According to the USDA's National Agricultural Statistics Service, organic farms in the U.S. sold $7.6 billion worth of certified organic commodities in 2016, up 23 percent from 2015. The number of certified organic farms increased 11 percent to 14,217 in 2016, and the number of certified acres increased 15 percent to 5 million.
Despite this rapid growth, still less than 1 percent of American farmland is farmed organically.
The gap between supply and demand means that many American organic food companies, retailers and businesses must turn to imports to meet the growing demand for organic staples like soybeans, corn and almonds.
Imports of organic soybeans and corn have steadily risen over the past few years (see tables below). In 2016, the U.S. imported $250 million worth of organic soybeans, while producing only $78.5 million worth domestically – surprising given that the U.S. is the largest producer of soybeans in the world.
Thankfully, there are some fairly simple ideas that could boost organic agriculture in the U.S.:
- Rep. Ann Kuster, D-N.H., has introduced a bill called the Homegrown Organic Act of 2017 that would make simple, no-cost changes to existing voluntary conservation programs to better assist producers intending to transition to organic manage technical, economic and land-access challenges.
- Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-Maine, has introduced a bill called The Organic Agriculture Research Act that would increase funding for organic research and extension programs to ensure that farmers transitioning to organic have greater access to high-yielding organic seeds, as well as the resources necessary to address weed, pest and soil health challenges.
Together, these two bills would help address some of the barriers farmers face in transitioning to organic. In turn, America's farmers and ranchers would be better positioned to meet the growing demand for organic food here at home.
As the Environmental Working Group's Legislative Director, Colin O'Neil focuses on a wide array of matters related to food and farm policy. He regularly meets with members of Congress and their staffs on agricultural policy issues including crop insurance, farm subsidies, conservation programs, food labeling, organic and sustainable farming and biofuels.
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By D. André Green II
One of nature's epic events is underway: Monarch butterflies' fall migration. Departing from all across the United States and Canada, the butterflies travel up to 2,500 miles to cluster at the same locations in Mexico or along the Pacific Coast where their great-grandparents spent the previous winter.
Millions of People Care About Monarchs<p>I will never forget the sights and sounds the first time I visited monarchs' overwintering sites in Mexico. Our guide pointed in the distance to what looked like hanging branches covered with dead leaves. But then I saw the leaves flash orange every so often, revealing what were actually thousands of tightly packed butterflies. The monarchs made their most striking sounds in the Sun, when they burst from the trees in massive fluttering plumes or landed on the ground in the tussle of mating.</p><p>Decades of educational outreach by teachers, researchers and hobbyists has cultivated a generation of monarch admirers who want to help preserve this phenomenon. This global network has helped restore not only monarchs' summer breeding habitat by planting milkweed, but also general pollinator habitat by planting nectaring flowers across North America.</p><p>Scientists have calculated that restoring the monarch population to a stable level of about 120 million butterflies will require <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/icad.12198" target="_blank">planting 1.6 billion new milkweed stems</a>. And they need them fast. This is too large a target to achieve through grassroots efforts alone. A <a href="https://www.fws.gov/savethemonarch/CCAA.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">new plan</a>, announced in the spring of 2020, is designed to help fill the gap.</p>
Pros and Cons of Regulation<p>The top-down strategy for saving monarchs gained energy in 2014, when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service <a href="https://www.fws.gov/southeast/pdf/petition/monarch.pdf" target="_blank">proposed</a> listing them as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. A decision is expected in December 2020.</p><p>Listing a species as endangered or threatened <a href="https://www.fws.gov/endangered/esa-library/pdf/listing.pdf" target="_blank">triggers restrictions</a> on "taking" (hunting, collecting or killing), transporting or selling it, and on activities that negatively affect its habitat. Listing monarchs would impose restrictions on landowners in areas where monarchs are found, over vast swaths of land in the U.S.</p><p>In my opinion, this is not a reason to avoid a listing. However, a "threatened" listing might inadvertently threaten one of the best conservation tools that we have: public education.</p><p>It would severely restrict common practices, such as rearing monarchs in classrooms and back yards, as well as scientific research. Anyone who wants to take monarchs and milkweed for these purposes would have to apply for special permits. But these efforts have had a multigenerational educational impact, and they should be protected. Few public campaigns have been more successful at raising awareness of conservation issues.</p>
<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="91165203d4ec0efc30e4632a00fdf57d"><iframe lazy-loadable="true" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/KilPRvjbMrA?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span>
The Rescue Attempt<p>To preempt the need for this kind of regulation, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service approved a <a href="https://www.fws.gov/savethemonarch/pdfs/Monarch%20CCAA-CCA%20Public%20Comment%20Documents/Monarch-Nationwide_CCAA-CCA_Draft.pdf" target="_blank">Nationwide Candidate Conservation Agreement for Monarch Butterflies</a>. Under this plan, "rights-of-way" landowners – energy and transportation companies and private owners – commit to restoring and creating millions of acres of pollinator habitat that have been decimated by land development and herbicide use in the past half-century.</p><p>The agreement was spearheaded by the <a href="http://rightofway.erc.uic.edu/" target="_blank">Rights-of-Way Habitat Working Group</a>, a collaboration between the University of Illinois Chicago's <a href="https://erc.uic.edu/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Energy Resources Center</a>, the Fish and Wildlife Service and over 40 organizations from the energy and transportation sectors. These sectors control "rights-of-way" corridors such as lands near power lines, oil pipelines, railroad tracks and interstates, all valuable to monarch habitat restoration.</p><p>Under the plan, partners voluntarily agree to commit a percentage of their land to host protected monarch habitat. In exchange, general operations on their land that might directly harm monarchs or destroy milkweed will not be subject to the enhanced regulation of the Endangered Species Act – protection that would last for 25 years if monarchs are listed as threatened. The agreement is expected to create up to 2.3 million acres of new protected habitat, which ideally would avoid the need for a "threatened" listing.</p>
A Model for Collaboration<p>This agreement could be one of the few specific interventions that is big enough to allow researchers to quantify its impact on the size of the monarch population. Even if the agreement produces only 20% of its 2.3 million acre goal, this would still yield nearly half a million acres of new protected habitat. This would provide a powerful test of the role of declining breeding and nectaring habitat compared to other challenges to monarchs, such as climate change or pollution.</p><p>Scientists hope that data from this agreement will be made publicly available, like projects in the <a href="https://www.fws.gov/savethemonarch/MCD.html" target="_blank">Monarch Conservation Database</a>, which has tracked smaller on-the-ground conservation efforts since 2014. With this information we can continue to develop powerful new models with better accuracy for determining how different habitat factors, such as the number of milkweed stems or nectaring flowers on a landscape scale, affect the monarch population.</p><p>North America's monarch butterfly migration is one of the most awe-inspiring feats in the natural world. If this rescue plan succeeds, it could become a model for bridging different interests to achieve a common conservation goal.</p>
The annual Ig Nobel prizes were awarded Thursday by the science humor magazine Annals of Improbable Research for scientific experiments that seem somewhat absurd, but are also thought-provoking. This was the 30th year the awards have been presented, but the first time they were not presented at Harvard University. Instead, they were delivered in a 75-minute pre-recorded ceremony.