Summary by Mrill Ingram
Organic production has been a bright light in agricultural development over the past two decades -- a rare area of rapid growth both in terms of increased acreage and also in the marketplace. Organic sales have grown over 20% annually for more than a decade, and were worth over $10.4 billion in 2003, and over 1.25 million acres were certified organic (UDA-ERS). According to the USDA, 56% of Americans believe that organic produce is healthier than conventionally grown produce, and 43% of American households have purchased organic food. In 2000, for the first time, over half of all organic products purchased where bought in conventional supermarkets (Dimitri & Greene 2002).
This skyrocketing market development for organic products and increasing consumer interest encouraged lawmakers at the federal level to pass legislation to create a nationally uniform set of production standards. The 1990 Organic Food Production Act (OFPA) required the U.S. Department of Agriculture to establish national standards for U.S. organic production (http://www.ams.usda.gov/nop/). The act passed as an amendment to the farm bill, and included no support for any organic research or extension -- being passed “strictly as a marketing bill,” (Sligh 2001). The goals of the OFPA were to establish standards, ensure consumers that organic products met those standards, and to facilitate interstate commerce (Dimitri and Oberholtzer 2006). The legislation focused on environmental quality by requiring that certified producers follow an organic production plan to manage soil fertility and manure applications in a way that prevent water pollution. Environmental and human health are also considered in the creation of lists of allowable and prohibited inputs. This National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances, is created by the National Organic Standards Board, a multi-stakeholder group of farmers, industry representatives, consumers and others who advice the USDA secretary on synthetic and non-synthetic substances allowed in organic production. Implementation of the OFPA has revealed differences of opinion on how to define synthetic, as well as natural, and have led to numerous extended debates as well as lawsuits and amendments to the law.
Previous to OFPA, organic market production was guided by a patchwork of state organic production laws and private certification bodies. Many of these groups were intimately involved in the research and education of organic approaches, and before the final implementation of OFPA, many certifiers were key sources of information about organic production techniques. OFPA requires that all organic certifiers go through a consistent accreditation process (based on ISO65). This process prohibits certifiers from being educators, and many certifiers split off from separate educational organizations that focus on outreach and extension. As organic has become more established in the market place, it has enjoyed some gains in research and educational support from land grant universities and other more mainstream agricultural research institutions. In 2005 the U.S. Government made approximately $7 million available for exclusively organic programs including certification cost-share program and $4.7 million for research grants. Overall sustainable agricultural research programs, including rural business enterprise grants and renewable energy funds, amounted to just over $100 million (Attranews 2006). The entire USDA Research, Education and Economic budget alone is over $2 billion.
A review of organic literature reveals a consistent focus on soil health and quality as well as a concern for the larger ecological setting of farms. Although the OFPA, driven by markets and consumer interest, in many ways defines organic products as being “pure” from pesticides and other synthetic contaminants, the larger goals of organic agriculture include the production of crops and livestock in a generally environmentally sensitive manner. Commenters on the draft rule requested (and obtained) language that includes a definition of organics as: "a production system that is managed … to respond to site-specific conditions by integrating cultural, biological, and mechanical practices that foster cycling of resources, promote ecological balance, and conserve biodiversity."
ATTRAnews. 2006. “Congress Completes Work on FY06 Spending Bill.” January-February, Page 4.
Dimitri, Carolyn & Catherine Greene. 2002. Recent Growth Patterns in the U.S. Organic Foods Market. Agriculture Information Bulletin No. 777. USDA-ERS, Washington, D.C.
Dimitri, Carolyn and Lydia Oberholtzer. 2006. “EU and U.S. Organic Markets Face Strong Demand Under Different Policies.” Amber Waves USDA-ERS: www.ers.usda.gov/AmberWaves/February06/Features/feature1.htm
Sligh, M. 2001. “Organic at the Crossroads.” Presentation at the Upper Midwest Organic Farming Conference, Lacrosse, WI. February 2001.