Once seen as a niche category for health nuts and hippies, organic food is now a choice for millions of Americans. After the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990, which established national organic standards, consumers had to purchase organic products at food co-ops and farmers markets for years. At present, more than half of organic sales take place in conventional grocery stores, club stores, and supercenters; Walmart, Costco, Kroger, Target, and Safeway are the top five organic retailers.
The availability of organic food has improved, and 82% of Americans say they buy some. Why do organic foods only make up 6% of all food sold in the United States? If organic farming has many benefits, such as conserving soil and water and reducing synthetic chemical use, can its share increase?
ISSUES WITH ORGANIC FARMING
Price is one issue. Organic food costs approximately 20% more than conventionally produced food. The price sometimes discourages even the most ardent organic shoppers.
Budget-constrained shoppers may limit their organic purchase to foods they are particularly concerned about, such as fruits and vegetables. Conventionally grown produce is significantly more contaminated with pesticides than organic produce.
It’s important to look beyond the price. Growing more organic products and growing more quantities will be necessary to increase organic food’s market share. More organic farmers will be needed than the U.S. currently has.
There are approximately 2 million farms in the United States. The number of organic crops is less than 1 percent – 16,585. A small fraction of the U.S. agricultural land is occupied by these farms, which occupy 5.5 million acres. Nearly two-thirds of U.S. farmland is dedicated to feeding animals and producing biofuels rather than food for people.
Converting more agricultural land to organic food production should be a national goal, according to me. A healthy diet, a healthy soil, and a healthy watershed come from organic farming. When raised organically, ruminants such as dairy cows must graze on pasture for at least 120 days each year, which reduces their methane emissions.
BENEFITS OF ORGANIC FARMING
Organic farming has a long list of climate and environmental benefits. In part, this is because organic farming uses fewer nitrogen fertilizers than conventional agriculture. Because organic farmers rotate their crops, use cover crops and compost, and eliminate fossil fuel-based inputs, organic farming emits 40% fewer greenhouse gases than conventional farming.
Both in terms of gross sales and acreage, organic farms are overwhelmingly small and midsized. Conventional farmers are on average much older than organic farmers.
For beginning farmers, starting small makes sense, and organic price premiums allow them to survive on smaller plots of land. Before they can begin to clean up the land, they must go through a three-year transition period.
As part of this process, they are not eligible to label products as organic but must follow organic standards, including avoiding the use of harmful chemicals and learning how to manage ecosystem processes. Typically, this results in a short-term decline in yield. There are many farmers who fail along the way.
Organic farmers face many challenges during the transition period. Support from the federal government could be helpful. In a recent report, the Swette Center for Sustainable Food Systems at Arizona State University, which I direct, identified actions that the Biden administration can take within existing budgets and laws to realize organic agriculture’s potential.
There is little USDA assistance for organic producers, especially when the agency spends billions of dollars each year supporting agriculture. Over two-thirds of farm subsidy dollars go to the top 10% of farms.
DATA ON ORGANIC FARMING
A market share of 6% is the figure we recommend for USDA budgeting to support the organic sector in our report. In 2020, the agency spent about $55 million on research directly relevant to organic agriculture within its $3.6 billion Research, Education and Economics mission area. 6% of that budget would equate to $218 million for things like developing natural predators instead of chemical pesticides to control pests.
Compared with conventional foods, organic foods cost more because they don’t use harmful pesticides or improve animal welfare. There is a growing number of scholars and practitioners who are advocating for the use of a methodology called True Cost Accounting, which they believe reveals the full costs and benefits of food production.
In an analysis by the Rockefeller Foundation, American consumers spend $1.1 trillion yearly on food, but the true cost of that food is $3.2 trillion once environmental and worker health impacts are taken into account. If we examine organic through the lens of True Cost Accounting, I see it as a good deal.