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The Critical To-Do List for Organic Agriculture

Thirty years ago, Congress passed the Organic Foods Production Act (OFPA) as part of the 1990 Farm Bill. The law established strict national standards for organic food and a public-private enforcement program to ensure compliance with the law. Today, the organic industry still faces a number of challenges. Last June, Arizona State University's Swette Center for Sustainable Food Systems issued a new report on how the organic food market can be improved. In this report, we directly address Joe Biden, the 46th President of the United States, and provide policy recommendations to better support the growing organic industry and its positive impacts on human health, the economy, and climate. These recommendations weave in global, national, and local impacts.

Organics and Health

The #1 reason consumers purchase organic food is to protect their health, and for good reasons. Each year, 970 million pounds of pesticides are applied to non-organic U.S. crops, which is nearly 20% of pesticide use around the world. (Photo Credit: USDA photo)

When we eat non-organic food, we directly ingest some of these pesticides. Although that quantity is considered "safe" by the FDA, research increasingly shows that it presents health risks, especially for children, infants, and fetuses (see a list of sources here). The most vulnerable to pesticide exposure are the farmers and farmworkers whom we rely on to grow and harvest our food. Pesticides directly affect their health, as well as the health of their families and local communities; a heavy price for the cost of cheap food.

In the ASU report, we detail 10 recommendations, one of which is to integrate organic food into USDA Food and Nutrition Services (FNS) programs. While FNS provides nutrition assistance to people in need through initiatives like school meals, WIC (Women and Infant Children), and SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program), the department currently has no objectives related to integrating or educating on organic food. Considering the population it serves is low income with often less access to healthcare, it is critical that this community can access both organic food as a preventive health measure and education that enables them to make nutritional, cost-effective choices throughout their lives.

Organics and Economics

In 2020, the pandemic increased both our individual and global attention on health. The organic sector experienced a 12.4% growth in sales in 2020 alone and is now a $61.9 billion industry, representing 5.8% of the food sold in the United States in 2020 (Photo Credit: Arizona State University)

In 2017, the organic sector counted 16,585 certified organic farmers in the United States, and all 50 States had at least some level of organic food production. Research shows that organic agriculture has a positive impact on local economies and is especially correlated with lower poverty rates and higher median household income at the county level. Research also shows that local areas that qualify as "organic hotspots" or organic intensive areas tend to have more diverse farm operations, with more women operators and sales that go directly to people and the community.

It can be difficult for new farmers to start in organic agriculture. Land access remains difficult for socially disadvantaged and beginning producers, especially Black and Indigenous farmers and ranchers. It can also be challenging for conventional farmers to transition to organic agriculture. While 30% of American farmers are over 65, the average organic farmer is 57.5 years old - a 12% shift or nearly eight years younger. This is significant because the U.S. desperately needs young people to repopulate the rural communities and working lands in order to replace retiring farmers. Young people tend to be more attracted to organic agriculture because of its impact on human health and environmental sustainability. Lowering the barrier to entry is essential to expanding organic farming and to expanding the many economic benefits that come with it. Our recommendations #23 and #24 are specifically focused on increasing support for transitioning farmers. Existing USDA programs, such as the Transition Incentive Program or the FSA Land Contract Guarantee, could be recalibrated (recommendation #30) to prioritize these farmers.

Organics and Climate

Lastly, organic agriculture is a critical element of an effective climate strategy. The recent release of the IPCC report confirms once again that "human influence has warmed the atmosphere, oceans and land". Agriculture is a leading cause of global warming, and it is urgent for policy makers to take action to reduce the carbon emissions of farming. Organic production uses 45% less energy than conventional agriculture because it does not use the synthetic fertilizers which are produced via a very energy-greedy process. Organic farmers also tend to use more human labor and less machinery, which leads to job creation, reduces fuel use, and improves potential for carbon sequestration in the soil, especially when using practices such as rotational grazing and crop rotation. Other environmental benefits include the protection of pollinators, soil biodiversity, and cleaner water streams, to highlight just a few.

Organic farmers provide a systemic approach for sustainable agriculture. The ASU report recommends that organic stakeholders be represented in climate policy discussions.

Organic and Local

Organic farming improves local economies, local biodiverse environments, and local communities. A study in California's Sacramento region found that 71% of farmers who sold directly to consumers were not only farming organically, but were also generating twice the amount of local economic activity compared to farmers selling directly to retailers. Organic farming techniques also preserve soil life and pollinators, supporting local biodiversity. A 6-year study found that, even during periods of flower scarcity, organic farming increased local honeybee colony survival rates by providing them with a more diverse diet of weeds and cover crops, and reduced pesticide drifts in the hive's surroundings. For humans too, neighbors of organic farms have significantly decreased risks of pesticide exposure. Organic farming and ranching enable local economies to become more resilient and sustainable - both economically and environmentally - while preserving the health of all the communities they feed.

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