The consumer demand for organic food has increased, according to a report released last month by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). Sales of organic food more than quintupled, increasing from $3.6 billion in 1997 to $18.9 billion in 2007. In 2006 alone the U.S. organic industry grew 21 percent in sales. Over two-thirds of consumers buy organic products at least occasionally, and 28 percent of consumers buy organic weekly.
The USDA report states that the “fast-paced growth” of the demand for organic food “has led to input and product shortages in organic supply chains.” The report cited a 2004 survey that found 44 percent of organic handlers had a shortage of needed ingredients or products, and 13 percent were not able to meet the market demand for at least one organic product in 2004.
The report concludes that public investment in organic farming “facilitates wider access to organic food for consumers and helps farmers capture high-value markets and boost farm income.”
“Two of the major findings of the USDA report – conventional food corporations taking over successful independent organic companies, and increasing dependence on imports – are not unrelated,” said Charlotte Vallaeys, Farm and Food Policy Analyst at The Cornucopia Institute.
A few weeks ago the San Francisco Chronicle ran an interview with Marion Nestle, a nutrition and public policy expert and activist. Nestle pointed out that until the last farm bill, “organic farmers received not one break from the federal government,” but corn, soybeans, wheat and cotton farmers receive about $20 billion a year in farm subsidies.
Nestle also noted that fruits and vegetables, essential for human nutrition, are considered to be specialty crops by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). “Industrial agriculture also benefits from federally administered marketing programs and from cozy relationships with congressional committees and the USDA,” Nestle added.
Going organic is a process and farmers need help during that process. The latest farm bill provides $22 million in mandatory funding to offset the costs of getting and keeping organic certification. It also includes $78 million over five years for research on production and marketing practices.
The goal of federal farm bills since the first one was passed in 1949 is to help family farmers. However, over 60 percent of small family farmers are not eligible for subsidies, according to U.S. Agricultural Census data. Seventy-one percent of farm subsidies go to the top ten percent of subsidy receivers, according to the Organic Farmers and Gardeners Union, most of which are large farms.
Small farms (27 acres or less) have “more than ten times greater dollar output per acre than larger farms,” according to Christos Vasilikiotis from U.C. Berkeley. Converting small farms from traditional methods to organic “would lead to sizeable increases of food production worldwide.” Vasilikiotis believes that “only organic methods” will help small farms survive and increase their productivity.