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.