Outside Influences

The Challenges of Organic Farming

Sales of organics are up, though it can be difficult to convince conventional farmers to change their methods.

AP Photo/Eric Risberg
March 14, 2017, 8 p.m.

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.

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