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More of us are eating organic foods these days, and those food choices are sustaining more jobs. This, according to a new report out this summer from the United States Department of Agriculture, the Council of Economic Advisers and the White House Rural Council. In 2011, the organic sector grew 9.5%, representing $31.4 billion in sales.
“The organic sector is fueling jobs and rural livelihoods at an astounding rate” said Matt McLean, Organic Trade Association Board President and fourth-generation Florida citrus grower. “Organic is also creating an important economic opportunity for rural Americans through new business opportunities generated from the recent organic equivalency trade arrangements with Canada and the European Union,” added McLean, noting that U.S. organic food is a significant part of President Obama’s efforts to boost agriculture exports.
Organic dairy has been an industry leader, growing 26% in the past decade. Flour Sack Mama recently asked the world’s largest organic yogurt company for its response to the report Strengthening Rural Communities: Lessons from a Growing Farm Economy. From time to time, we sample some of Stonyfield’s new products, but we wanted to know about the big picture. Responses are from our chat with Britt Lundgren, Director of Organic and Sustainable Agriculture at Stonyfield Farm.
Q: A new government report points out that organic farming, and particularly organic dairy, has been one of the fastest growing agriculture sectors. Stonyfield Organic has a long history of supporting organic dairy farmers, before it was trendy. What’s your response to this report?
- The fact that the organic sector has continued to grow at a steady pace in recent years, despite the economic downturn, is evidence of how more and more people are starting to ask questions about where their food comes from and how it was grown. We’re excited about the continued growth of organic, because every new acre of organic farmland is an acre that isn’t being treated with pesticides and every new organic cow is one more animal that isn’t being treated with unnecessary antibiotics or growth hormones.
We have long believed that organic farms can be an important part of rural economies, so it’s exciting to see the White House recognizing that in this report.
Q: Organic pioneers like Gary Hirshberg and others were using sustainable methods even before there was a USDA certified organic program. How would you describe the coming of age of USDA Organic program and what it means for agriculture?
- The USDA certified organic seal provides consumers with a label that they can trust. In a world where we seem to have a new food safety scare every week, and we’re constantly learning more information about the negative health effects of pesticides and food additives, it’s important that people have a label that they can turn to.
As people become more aware about the food they’re eating, they’re starting to ask tough questions about all of the things they eat. We think that the agricultural industry needs to respond by becoming more transparent, and we’ve made a commitment to transparency ourselves. We share a great deal of information via our website, and are always happy to provide more information if someone contacts us with a question about the origins of our ingredients or our production practices.
Q: USDA-backed research, $117 million according to this report, has recently been focused on organics. How does this benefit the industry, and does it benefit consumers?
- It’s important to note that the total amount of money that the federal government spends on research on organic agriculture is only about 2% of the total agricultural research budget. Given the promise of organic to produce food sustainably while reducing our reliance on fossil fuels and eliminating the use of toxic pesticides, we think this investment should be much larger. It should at least be on a par with organic’s share of total food sales, which is about 5%.
- That said, the research that is being done with that funding is looking at a wide range of interesting and exciting topics. A lot of this research is focused on things like developing farming practices or crop varieities that are better suited for local conditions and organic practices, while other portions of the research look at things like how we can better assess the environmental impact or greenhouse gas emissions from organic agriculture. These days we are particularly excited about a project at the University of New Hampshire’s organic dairy farm that is looking at increasing the omega-3 content of milk and possibly reducing greenhouse gas emissions from cows at the same time by supplementing the cows’ feed with flax seed.
Q: Is enforcement strong enough to maintain the integrity of the USDA Organic seal, even as more and bigger players enter the marketplace?
- Since 2009, the USDA has had a much stronger focus on enforcement of the organic standard. We’ve even seen a few producers and processers lose their certification as a result of these increased enforcement efforts. These enforcement efforts are an important part of making sure people can continue to trust the organic standard.
Q: Anything else consumers should know about the growth of organic foods in the United States and what that means for them?
- I think it’s important for everybody to remember that this growth in organic is happening because people are demanding it. It’s a good reminder that we can really all make a difference when we vote with our wallets at the grocery store. And it’s not just about picking the organic option when you can – if you don’t see an organic option on the shelf when you’re looking for it, it’s easy to ask your grocer to start stocking it. It’s a great way to help ensure that organics continues to grow.