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Purely Organic (video)
April 19, 2001

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The USDA’s newly created National Organic Program

The new national standards

Organic Farming Research Foundation

Organic Trade Association

USDA Economic Research Service "Briefing Room" on organic farming


It’s been a question in agriculture for several years: Is organic produce better?

A group of scientists have looked into the question, and in the current issue of the journal Nature they report that organic farming does at least yield the best apples.

The ScienCentral News video report at the right gives the details.

What is organic agriculture?

There are two basic tenets of organic farming: almost all synthetic inputs are prohibited, and "soil building" crop rotations are mandatory (alternating the crops grown on a specific field in such a way that contributes to soil fertility). Properly managed, organic farming reduces or eliminates water pollution and helps conserve water and soil on the farm.

For the past several years organic food was certified by various state and private organizations that applied their own standards in defining the term "organic." But starting April 21, a set of national standards created by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) will go into effect. These will include minimum requirements for labeling, certification, and the accreditation of certifiers—but individual states may still impose more restrictive standards if they choose, according to the USDA.

A small but growing market

Only two-tenths of 1 percent of all U.S. cropland was certified organic in 1997, the last year for which official figures are available. But a report released this month by the USDA’s Economic Research Service shows that this figure is more than twice as high as it was in 1992. Additionally, individual state certifiers are claiming that the momentum has continued, with reported gains of anywhere from 38 to 150 percent since 1997.

The majority of organic crops in the U.S. are field crops such as grains and beans, but there is also substantial acreage set aside for fruits (grapes, apples, citrus), vegetables (tomatoes, lettuce, carrots), herbs, and other crops like cotton or maple syrup. There are also organic meat and poultry products, but those have lagged due in great part to the fact that they could not be USDA-labeled until early 1999. That market has been growing since the labeling was put into effect, which is in turn pushing up the acreage of certified organic pasture and rangeland, plus the demand for certified organic feed grains. Organic nonmeat animal foods (eggs and dairy products) are regulated by the FDA, and have grown exponentially from 1992 to 1997 (organic milk cows are up 469 percent; organic egg-laying hens are up 1,123 percent).

The International Trade Centre (ITC) estimates that combined retail sales of organic food and beverages in major world markets amounted to $11 billion in 1997 and $13-13.5 billion in 1998. Organic food sales in 1997 accounted for 1 to 2 percent of total food sales in the U.S., and medium-term growth rates call for a 20 to 30 percent annual increase, according to the ITC.

Organic farming has been adopted to a greater extent in Europe—1.5 percent of total agricultural land compared to 0.16 percent in the U.S. Most countries in Europe have offered direct financial support for conversion to organic farming since the late 1980s, a policy that has been adopted more recently by several states in the U.S.

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