Published on Monday, April 3, 2000 in the Washington Post
New Study: Despite Biotech Push, Consumer Demand Sends Organic Farming Soaring
by Marc Kaufman
With consumer demand for organic foods increasing, the number of acres of U.S. farmland certified for organic use has also been growing at double-digit annual rates.

Acreage under organic cultivation nationwide more than doubled from 1992 to 1997, according to a new study from the Department of Agriculture's Economic Research Service. Updated surveys from individual states, including California, Idaho and North Dakota, show the rapid growth continuing through 1999.

"Once we get the latest numbers pulled together, I think we'll see a substantial across-the-board increase," said Catherine Greene, author of the USDA's most comprehensive report on organic farming.

The USDA has not traditionally emphasized the environmental aspects of organic farming--in part because conventional farmers have been sensitive to suggestions that their practices are not environmentally sound--but that reluctance may be changing.

"To become certified, an organic farmer has to have a plan to show how the environmental quality of the farm will be enhanced," said Kathleen Merrigan, who oversees USDA organic efforts with the Agricultural Marketing Service. "So by its nature, an organic farm will be a benefit to the environment."

Organic farming does not allow potentially harmful synthetic pesticides and herbicides, and it promotes soil conservation through crop rotations and the use of natural waste. Organic livestock are fed organic grains or graze on pastures--avoiding large-scale feedlots--and cannot use antibiotics as growth promoters.

Despite the recent growth, the acreage under organic production remains small--only 1.34 million acres in 1997. That's a little under two-tenths of 1 percent of the nation's 828 million acres of farmland, the report concludes, or roughly the size of Rhode Island.

In contrast, more than 1.5 percent of agricultural land in Europe was farmed organically in 1997, according to European Union reports. With governments there more actively promoting and subsidizing organic farming, some are predicting that 10 percent to 20 percent of European farmland will be organic by 2010.

But organic farming in the United States is expected to get a major boost when federal rules are approved for the nation's long-delayed organic certification program. Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman has said he expects the rules to be finalized by year's end, and officials predict federally approved organic labels will be on foods by 2002.

In addition, with U.S. consumer demand for organic food projected to increase 20 percent annually, some in Washington and at the grass roots are detecting a change in farmers' perceptions of organics. Recent decisions by major food companies to acquire or start up organic food divisions are symptomatic of that transformation.

Prescott Bergh, sustainable farming coordinator at the Minnesota Department of Agriculture, said, for instance, that attendance by farmers at organic conferences is increasing markedly. With many traditional commodity prices very low, farmers are looking with new interest at organic farming and its ability to command substantially higher prices.

"There was a kind of stigma to organic for a long time, with some farmers associating it with back-to-the-land hippies," he said. "That hasn't been true for 20 years, but it lingered in some farmers' minds. But now when General Mills and Pillsbury start to show up on supermarket aisles with organic products, it gives the whole movement more credibility in their eyes."

General Mills Inc., the nation's second-largest cereal maker, bought Small Planet Foods last year, which sells Cascadian Farm organic frozen vegetables and juices and Muir Glen organic pasta sauces and salsa. Pillsbury North America, which is owned by Diageo PLC, has been successful selling organic bakery goods.

The Clinton administration has tried to encourage organic farming this year by proposing $5 million for research and marketing and by setting up a pilot federal crop insurance program to cover the premium price of organic foods. In addition, some states have begun to support organics through limited cost-sharing for certification costs (Minnesota) and by defining organic farming as a soil conservation effort that can be subsidized (Iowa).

This gradual mainstreaming of organic agriculture is hotly debated among organic advocates, with some believing it will result in an inevitable watering down of the basic organic approach of balanced and sustainable agriculture.

Others argue that it will bring improved foods to consumers and will, by its nature, reduce environmental insults from pesticides, fertilizers and other elements of large-scale industrial farming. (A 1992 Cornell University study estimated that environmental damage from pesticide use alone cost $8 billion annually, including lost fish, wildlife and beneficial insects.) The USDA organic program has also banned biotech methods--a step that many organic advocates believe will help protect the environment as well.

"Until recently, the environmental movement hasn't been so appreciative of organic farming," said Margaret Mellon of the Union of Concerned Scientists. "But there are enormous environmental benefits to be had from any transition to organic agriculture."

The issue of how much government should support organic farming has also become more heated. Kenneth Cook of the Environmental Working Group, a Washington-based advocacy group, released a report last week sharply critical of the Clinton administration for speeding ahead on biotechnology while moving with painful deliberation on organics.

Cook said that while organics have grown under Clinton, biotech has grown much faster--with 1.3 million acres of organic farming now compared with 60 million planted with biotech crops. "The organic percentage has to increase a lot to begin to really make much of an environmental difference," Cook said. "What we have now is basically a string of small oases of organic farming dotting a landscape that's overwhelmingly conventional."

Reflecting the traditionally limited role that organic farming has played in the United States, the new USDA statistics on acreage are not its own, but rather are collected from private and state-created organic certifiers. Agency economist Greene said that questions about organic farming are expected to be included in the 2002 agricultural census, greatly improving the department's understanding of organic trends.

Conventional Agriculture

Industrial farming relies upon synthetic herbicides, pesticides, fungicides and fertilizers to boost crop yields and keep prices low.

* Soil used as substrate in which to grow crops. Chemicals kill or retard the growth of soil organisms.

* Treated sewage sludge and raw animal manures widely used as fertilizer.

* Exposed soils require more irrigation and are susceptible to wind and water erosion.

* Dependence on synthetic chemicals may decrease as genetically engineered crops are developed that control insects.

* Livestock commonly raised in holding pens and feedlots. Animals fed growth hormones and low levels of antibiotics.

Organic Farming

Organic farming uses natural systems to enhance productivity. Organic foods often cost much more due to labor-intensive practices and limited availability.

* Farmers build and improve soils by adding compost and mulch, which feeds a system of naturally occurring bacteria, fungi, earthworms and other organisms that make nutrients available to crops. Loose, organic soils promote root growth and hold more water.

* Weeds controlled with mulch, mechanical tilling or cover crops, which hold and fertilize soils and provide habitat for beneficial insects.

* Plants grown organically may be healthier and therefore more resistant to diseases and pests. Pest outbreaks are controlled by mechanical and biological methods.

* Animals have access to outdoors and are fed organically grown feeds.

Proposed USDA Organic Standards

Some pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers prohibited at least three years before harvest.

* Crop rotation required to avoid pest and disease outbreaks.

* Sewage sludge, irradiation and genetically engineered products prohibited.

* Soil fertility managed through tillage and supplemented with plant waste, composted animal waste and allowed synthetic materials.

* Organic seeds preferred; some non-organic seeds and planting stock allowed.

* Pests, weeds and diseases controlled with physical, mechanical and biological controls. Some synthetic substances allowed.

* Animals for slaughter are raised organically from birth, eat organic feeds and allowed access to outdoors. Hormones and antibiotics prohibited; vaccines allowed.

SOURCES: USDA; Cheryl Long, Organic Gardening Magazine; Monsanto

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