Organics a drop in the bucket

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has been heavily promoting its organic programs lately, particularly its increased support for organic farming in the new farm bill:

"Consumer demand for organic products has grown exponentially over the past decade. With retail sales valued at $35 billion last year, the organic industry represents a tremendous economic opportunity for farmers, ranchers and rural communities," said Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack. "New support in the 2014 Farm Bill will enhance USDA's efforts to help producers and small business tap into this market and support organic agriculture as it continues to grow and thrive."

One of the narratives of the 2014 Farm Bill was, in fact, that organic farming got "historic wins".

So many produce coolers... Photo: David Sommerstein.

So many produce coolers… Photo: David Sommerstein.

And it's true. The federal government has never been more supportive of training, funding, and insuring organic agriculture.

But author Marion Nestle, the incredibly sharp food expert, nails the bigger point in her latest blog post on Food Politics (sign up for her e-mailed newsletter). All the money that will go to organic farming is a drop in the bucket:

Adds up to more than $40 million and sounds good, no?  Industrial agriculture gets $20 billion a year.

Organics are still a tiny fraction of the U.S. food supply and all too easy for USDA—and Congress—to ignore and not take seriously.

That argument reminds me of the big lesson I drew from recent trips to New York City to cover "buy/eat local" related issues.

For all the passion and pride and innovation surrounding locally grown food and organic food, they remain the tiniest drop in New York City's "Giant Pool of Food".

When I spent the day following an organic farming couple trying to establish markets in the city, that fact is what inspired them. "There's just so much opportunity," Dan and Megan Kent said, almost breathlessly. (Check out my Year on the Farm series documenting 2014 on their farm.)

But Nestle's point is well-taken: if the local movement wants to get taken seriously with The Big Guys, it's going to have to sell a lot more food.

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  1. Given the amount of land we have and the number of people we have to feed (and will have to feed in the not-too-distant future) organic farming is simply not a viable alternative on a large scale. For those who can afford the more expensive food and can afford to use more land to produce the same amount of food organics are a cool alternative. But organics are not a serious alternative on a large scale especially globally where most of what farmers here produce is sold and consumed.

    Organic farmers simply cannot "sell a lot more food". It may be better for us all to be living in caves and producing our own food on our own land but we are never going back there. Organics is just a cool look back at where we were in farming not far back. Going back there is a huge mistake.

    • I maintain that the difficulty of scaling up organic agriculture is one of the great problems of our age, like finding cures for cancer or Alzheimers (though I admit, lacks the urgency of these noble projects). Listen up college students,If enough talent were put on the job of making organic production systems efficient, entrepreneurs would get in the game and scale up all the various modes of organic agriculture. With some notable exceptions nationwide, too many smart folks are currently absorbed in making smart phones smarter or fiddling with other peoples money in the financial markets.
      Additionally, we need to recognize that some regions of the nation (and globe) have large advantages in climate, soil, etc. and are so much better able to produce organic products that those of us in other regions (eg. organic grains are never going to be easy to grow in the Northeast).

      • Very small losses in yield (or I should say lower yields for organic) really make it a non-starter. Science clearly shows us that the yields there simply are lower. You can find other breeds and such that will produce higher yields. But they will probably produce even higher yields under non-organic conditions. Here we are talking about turning back the clock to a time where yields were lower and environmental impacts were greater (you need to till and plant more land to grow at lower yields) it simply makes no sense given the demands. These demands are only increasing look at the amount of food we will need by 2050. Organics is just a cool option for the folks that can afford it.

        I have nothing against it and I eat the stuff myself but it is never going to be a replacement for modern conventional agriculture. You have to move forward not back.

    • Paul, I am not an organic absolutist, but several of the points you raise are debatable. For instance, are current food shortages caused by insufficient yield or by political and economic factors? Are we comparing apples to apples when we measure yields of various organic crops, which according to a recent study in Nature range from 5% below conventional to 34% below conventional. Is our current high-yield system of commodity crops – soy, wheat, corn, cotton, rice – sustainable or even desirable?

      I agree with you that there is an element of "looking backward" in the modern organic movement (a position that has motivated me in the past), but I can assure you that today's successful organic farmers thrive by looking firmly ahead and innovating using 21st century know-how and technology.

  2. Paul would like us to ignore the fact that tens of millions of acres are sprayed with herbicides (poisons) each and every year. These chemicals have an estrogenic effect on the body, endangering not just the farmer and the consumer, but their children and grandchildren. We are bargaining the lower
    prices for commercially grown foods against a steep increase in cancer rates, and we will lose while someone grows rich.

  3. 30% of food is currently discarded as waste. Organic food contains more micronutrients, so less of it is needed to satiate the body. One can not make a direct comparison between monocultural agriculture practices and organic farming practices. The US exports most of its small grains from land that could be otherwise utilized to grow healthy food for our own population.