A few weeks ago, we had the pleasure of attending Organic Week with the Organic Trade Association (OTA) in Washington D.C. It was a fantastic educational experience. We learned a ton about organic farming and textiles. We focused especially on the challenges these industries face and why it’s so important as a consumer to choose organic whenever possible.
Now we want to address the many questions you may have about who/how/what/why of organic farming and purchasing. We certainly not experts, but we were lucky to connect with many experts and leaders in the organic food industry who provided plenty of helpful insight to share with you. Please comment below or send us an email with any specific questions not addressed here!
Organic Week D.C.
First things first. We’d like to thank the Organic Trade Association for inviting us to attend Organic Week. We’re always grateful for opportunities to learn more about important issues in the food industry, and there’s nothing better than first-hand experience.
All three of us – me (Lexi), my mom Beth, and my younger brother and summer intern Bryce – flew to D.C. for Organic Week. On our first evening, we attended several internal meetings about current projects in the OTA and plans for Tuesday’s Advocacy Day meetings on Capitol Hill.
Advocacy Day was the main event of the week. Each year, Organic Trade Association members head to Capitol Hill to meet with members of Congress and their staff to lobby for organic-friendly legislation. Lobbying is when invested parties present important information and data to government officials so legislators can make informed decisions. Congressmen and women can’t be experts on every major (or minor) issue. Even though they have staff who specialize in certain issues, it’s important to hear from industry experts before making major decisions.
This year, 200+ organic leaders attended Organic Week. On Advocacy Day, those 200+ people attended 180 hill visits altogether. Pretty impressive! We attended four congressional meetings. Each meeting consisted of 5 to 7 individuals representing the organic food industry, including farmers and growers, certification agencies, various food brands and distributors, and OTA employees.
This year, the OTA decided to bring along 8 influencers invested in the future of organic farming. We were honored to be one of them! Although I still struggle a bit with the term “influencer”, the idea is that we have built an amazing audience (that’s you!) interested in many of the same issues we are. It’s part of our job to use our platform to spread important news, and we’re so grateful (and humbled) to be able do that. The OTA decided to bring influencers to make organic lobbying more transparent to consumers.
The meetings we attended were all productive and well-received. Although the meetings were quick (10-15 minutes max), our groups were mostly able to get the important messages across. Among these important messages were the following topics:
2018 Farm Bill enforcement
The 2018 Farm Bill was a huge win for the organic food industry. We’ll talk more about the details in a few. But the bottom line is that despite the win for organic, it’s really up to Congress to enforce the bill and hold the USDA accountable for implementing these policies effectively. All of our meetings focused on this, which is a reminder for Congress to stay involved and keep pushing forward for organic.
Childhood nutrition and the WIC program
Another popular and pressing topic was the importance of introducing more organic foods at public schools. It’s incredibly important to teach children healthy habits from a young age, especially when it comes to food. This is an issue that just about everyone can agree on – we all want what’s best and healthiest for our children.
Along the same lines, the Women, Infants and Children Program (WIC) is a nutrition intervention program for these nutritionally at-risk populations. The WIC program is shown to reduce infant mortality and low birthweight rates, improve the diets of pregnant and postpartum women and significantly improve children’s diets, among other things. You can read more about WIC here.
Organic improves the environment
It’s vital for Congress to understand how organic improves the environment. Especially why it’s necessary to support transitioning farmers. Organic agricultural practices improve soil health, which is vital to the future of a healthy environment. Additionally, organic farming traps carbon in the soil. This means that by switching to organic, farmers can help our country go carbon-neutral, which is likely to be a requirement to mitigate climate change.
The reps in our Advocacy Day meetings discussed many more topics, for the most part quite successfully. After Advocacy Day, we heard directly from organic leaders on the issues discussed below.
Why organic is better for the environment
Organic avoids harmful pesticides
Let’s start with the basics. Organic growing practices avoid harmful chemicals and toxins. Conventional farming involves the use of pesticides and artificial fertilizers that contaminate and harm soil, water, and consequently, our bodies. By avoiding toxic chemicals, organic farming also helps preserve natural habitats and conserve biodiversity. Organic farming prohibits 700+ chemicals. Which means that there are 700+ chemicals potentially available to conventional farmers!
The lack of synthetic chemicals alone should be enough to convince just about anyone to choose organic. That being said, only one percent of US farmland is certified organic. There’s a ton of room to improve, but it’s not exactly easy for farmers to transition from conventional to organic. It’s expensive and takes three years to become certified organic, which is why the OTA is taking measures to support transitional farmers. We’ll touch more on that soon!
Organic improves soil health
In addition to a lack of harmful chemicals, organic farming practices are shown to improve soil health. For generations, we’ve brushed aside the importance of soil health. Now, we’re starting to see significant consequences. Unhealthy soil leads to erosion, as it doesn’t hold on to water or nutrients. Soil erosion leads to water contamination, which in turn affects our health. Additionally, unhealthy soil actually releases carbon into the atmosphere, which becomes the harmful greenhouse gas carbon dioxide. Conventional farming practices are largely to blame for neglecting soil health. Organic practices, on the other hand, are an excellent solution.
Carbon sequestration + organic soil
Ever heard of carbon sequestration? It’s the process of capturing and storing atmospheric carbon dioxide to mitigate climate change. Good news: healthy, organic soil has been shown to store up to 26% more carbon than conventionally-farmed soil! That’s certainly significant, and an actionable way to improve the environment. You can read more about carbon sequestration here.
Why organic is better for the food industry
In addition to improving the environment, organic is clearly a better choice for our bodies and for society as a whole. Organic is no longer a niche market. U.S. organic sales surpassed $52.5 billion in 2018, and there are now over 27,000 certified organic operations nationwide. Over 82% of U.S. households purchase organic, and 15% of all produce sold in the U.S. is organic. Organic produce sales are growing at 3x the rate of conventional!
Organic farms are 35% more profitable than conventional farms, which means farmers can earn a sustainable living and pay workers fairer wages. Going organic also reduces public health risks to farmers and their families, as well as consumers, by minimizing exposure to toxic chemicals in soil and consequently, food.
Additionally, there’s evidence that organic produce is more nutritious than conventional produce. This study shows that organic crops contain more antioxidants. Conventional crops were shown to contain 4x more pesticide residues, which are especially harmful to young children. Exposure to pesticides negatively affects brain development and can also harm pregnant women.
Altogether, organic is the right step forward in the food industry when it comes to improving the health of individuals, the environment, and farmers.
The 2018 Farm Bill
The 2018 Farm Bill includes historic wins for the organic food industry. As the OTA explains,
“The Organic Trade Association’s Farm Bill platform calls for full support and adequate funding for the USDA National Organic Program (NOP) to keep pace with industry growth, set uniform standards, and carry out compliance and enforcement actions in the U.S. and abroad. It advocates for organic-focused research, risk management tools, data collection and direct dialog between industry and USDA that are critical to organic farmers’ success. It calls for improved access to land and capital, investment in distribution systems and infrastructure, and targeted technical assistance through the utilization of existing USDA conservation, rural development, and other programs to encourage transition to organic.”
The Farm Bill includes a number of provisions that will help increase the growth of organic food in the U.S. It also led to historic investments in organic research. This will help move the industry forward and transition more farmers to organic. The financial and technical difficulty of transitioning to organic is a huge issue, so it’s significant that this bill supports transitioning farmers.
We suggest heading here to learn more about the organic farm bill.
Understanding organic food labels and certifications
Organic certification labels are pretty straightforward. 100% organic is exactly what it sounds like. All ingredients in the product were produced exclusively using organic methods. When looking at an ingredient list, you can identify organic ingredients as those that have an asterisk or other special symbol.
A traditional USDA organic label signifies that the product contains at least 95% organic ingredients. The other 5% must be non-GMO and on the National List. “Made with organic ____” means that a product must contain at least 70% organic ingredients. These products cannot use the USDA organic seal, however they are still certified through the same process.
If a product contains less than 70% organic ingredients, it’s illegal to include the USDA organic seal or the word “organic” anywhere on the main display panel. However, ingredients can be individually specified on the ingredient list, so you can see which ingredients are organic.
One initiative we found particularly interesting is Kashi’s Certified Transitional program to support farmers transitioning from conventional to organic. Farmers face huge hurdles when they decide to transition their crops. It takes three full years to meet the organic certification requirements. As a result, they face three years of economic uncertainty and all of the difficulties that comes with farming organically.
Kashi’s Certified Transitional initiative encourages farmers to go organic. It also supports those facing financial insecurity during the three-year period. It’s a win-win for everyone and an important step in shifting all agriculture organic. You can read more about it here and keep an eye out for the Certified Transitional label on products at the store!
Regenerative agriculture seems to be the new buzzword in the food industry. We first learned about it during our visit to Cascadian Farm last fall (you can read more here), and we had a chance to learn more at Organic Week.
Regenerative agriculture includes sustainable farming practices and an effort to increase biodiversity, improve ecosystems, and strengthen farming communities. Essentially, it’s a holistic approach to farming that aims to reverse some of the damage to soil and climate health. It also calls for avoiding artificial pesticides and unsustainable practices.
In 2018, the Regenerative Organic Alliance introduced a standard for Regenerative Organic Certification. Using the USDA Organic standard as a baseline requirement, regenerative certification goes further to improve standards in soil health, animal and farmer welfare. We’re interested to see regenerative agriculture grow in the next few years. We’ll be keeping close tabs!
Issues facing the organic food industry
Why is organic food more expensive?
Organic food is more expensive simply because of the work required. Without chemicals and pesticides, there’s more manual work for pest and disease control. Additionally, organic farms tend to be significantly smaller than conventional farms. Therefore their output is smaller and their post-production handling costs are higher.
It’s really important to change the mindset about the cost of organic food. Over the long term, the slightly higher price you pay for organic food can pay off in the form of reduced future healthcare costs. Additionally, by investing in organic, you’re investing in the Earth, farmers’ welfare and environmental longevity. I’d say that’s well worth a few extra cents for better-tasting zucchini!
Roadblocks to improving labeling and standards
The last 10 years has seen 20 consensus recommendations to improve organic standards and labeling, and NONE have been implemented. It’s certainly not for a lack of effort from leaders in the organic food industry. The truth is that regulatory advancement is not easy in government. There’s a lot of bureaucratic red tape. Even when bills and funding pass, it’s difficult to enforce implementation. This is one of the reasons lobbying is so important. We must keep these issues at the forefront of the food industry to move things along. It’s also reassuring as a consumer to understand that the organic industry is actually trying to improve standards rather than degrade them.
Fraud in the organic food industry
One of the most important reasons for improving standards is to prevent fraud. The prevalence of fraud really comes down to a lack of attention from the USDA, which unfortunately tarnishes the USDA organic seal. There have been several cases in which non-organic farmers have sold millions worth of crops falsely marketed as organic. There’s been significant pressure on the USDA to enforce more rigorous standards.
How to improve accessibility in the organic food industry
While organic has grown across all demographics (race/ethnicity, age, gender, region), there’s still plenty of room to improve. Millennial parents in the 18- to 35-year-old range are currently the largest consumers of organic food. As more millennials become parents, it’s likely that organic will continue to grow in popularity.
The focus, however, needs to shift more towards groups that don’t have as much accessibility, or don’t think organic is worth their money. It’s important for brand marketing to focus on inclusivity across races, ethnicities, ages and locations. There are plenty of consumers across all income levels looking to shift towards healthier lifestyles, but it’s not always accessible.
Interestingly, something as simple as integrating organic and non-organic products in grocery stores can make a huge difference. A devoted organic “health food” section often seems unapproachable. Setting organic apart from conventional frames it as far more expensive, so many shoppers skip the aisle altogether. Integrating organic and non-organic products allows consumers to price compare. More often than not, they realize the slight difference in price isn’t all that much, and as a result, they purchase more organic. No doubt, a lot of that has to do with the fact that the organic produce looks healthier and better-tasting.
Additionally, while millennials are already trending towards organic, organic brands have failed to focus on baby boomers, who often have more disposable income to spend on organic. A simple shift in marketing strategy to target boomers can make a huge difference.
Recap: why it’s important to choose organic
When you choose organic, you’re not just investing in your own health – you’re investing in a better future. Climate change is a critical issue. Organic is just one piece of the puzzle, but it’s an incredibly important piece. As consumers, we need to make conscious decisions to put our money where it matters.
Organic is for everyone. No matter your budget, there are affordable ways to fit organic into every lifestyle. Buy in bulk, shop seasonally, shop locally when possible, make more meals at home; whatever you do, we encourage you consider the impact of your food choices. It’s well worth it!
Still have questions? OTA has a fantastic website with a ton of helpful resources. Head here to explore.