ANAHEIM, Calif.—After a winter of farmers complaining about low commodity prices, declining incomes, and fears that President Trump’s rhetoric about Mexico and China will lead to declining exports, it was a joy to encounter Expo West, the organic and natural-products trade show where sales are rising.
Last weekend an estimated 70,000 enthusiastic consumers came to the Anaheim Convention Center to sample everything from the organic milk that can be found in most grocery stores to exotics such as Canadian hemp seeds certified not to contain genetically modified organisms, and milk-free, nut-free, soy-free, gluten-free, non-GMO-certified mini snickerdoodles. (The snickerdoodles’ main ingredients are rice, buckwheat, palm shortening, and white and brown cane sugar.)
Farmers are getting a premium price for organic commodities, and with sales rising to $43 billion in 2015 and accounting for almost 5 percent of U.S. food sales, the question is why more American farmers aren’t switching to organic production. Therein lies a complicated tale.
For the uninitiated consumer or farmer, the origin of modern organics takes a bit of explanation.
Today’s certified organic-food industry has roots in the 1970s and ’80s when some farmers began to question the growing use of synthetic chemicals in large-scale farm production. The California producers decided that the only way to reassure consumers about the integrity of organic claims was to ask Congress to develop national standards. In 1990, Congress passed the Organic Foods Production Act, which says that organic food must be produced “without the use of synthetic chemicals” and that organic meat must come from livestock that have not been fed synthetic chemicals. Following an international standard, the law says that a farmer must stop applying synthetic chemicals to land three years before it can be certified for organic production.
The Agriculture Department’s National Organic Program supervises firms that certify that organic producers in both the United States and foreign countries are meeting the standards, and it is in charge of the USDA Organic Seal on products. USDA developed regulations that say the use of GMOs is prohibited in organic products, that livestock cannot eat GMO alfalfa or corn, and that soup and other processed foods cannot contain any genetically modified ingredients. Organic farmers must also protect their products from contact with prohibited substances from farm to table.
All these regulations have meant that most farmers and ranchers who have shifted to organic production have been as much committed to the cause as seeking economic gain. A 2015 USDA report showed that organic production had risen to 4.4 million acres, still a tiny percentage of the nation’s farm and ranch land. As consumer interest has risen, a huge shortage of organic feed for animals has developed, and has been met by imports, mostly from countries such as Turkey with questionable governance standards. Some farmers have questioned whether the imported feed ingredients really meet organic standards and have complained that the imports have lowered the premium that domestic producers should get for their feed. USDA’s inspector general is conducting an audit of the National Organic Program’s controls over imports. It should be released this summer.
Organic-industry officials acknowledge that domestic sourcing of ingredients is more reassuring to consumers than imports. But they face two challenges in convincing farmers to convert to organics. The first is to maintain the integrity of the Organic Seal. The National Organic Program is a marketing program, not a food-safety or health program, even though studies show the No. 1 reason people buy organics is to avoid pesticides. If Trump decides it is a lefty, silly program, he could try to gut the funding or reduce the standards—and consequently consumer confidence.
Kathleen Merrigan, the former Agriculture deputy secretary who wrote the Organic Foods Production Act when she was a Senate aide, said at Expo West that the industry’s growth and potential may be its biggest source of protection with a president who is impressed by success.
But Trump might be more impressed with an increase in domestic organic production, even though there are practical and cultural barriers to it. Organic farming only works where farmers can protect their production from contamination from nearby genetically modified crops. A Nebraska organic farmer at Expo West said social ostracism is a big barrier to going organic. His adult daughter said that when she was in school, the children of conventional farmers called her father “crazy” and said their fathers would buy her father’s land when he went bankrupt.
The image of the organic farmer may change, however. A farm banker said he recently advised a conventional farmer to consider organic farming to make more money, but the farmer said he doesn’t believe in the concept of organics. The banker said the farmer should think twice.
If current sales trends continue, perhaps he will.