Take your family grocery shopping in nearly any supermarket nowadays, and you’re likely to find an entire aisle or two dedicated to organics if it’s not already integrated into the entire store. That’s because the organic movement and organic farming are growing in popularity, and that’s good news.
Food Navigator reports that the U.S. organic market will grow by 14% from 2013 to 2018, but we don’t have the infrastructure to supply that much demand with American grown produce. That means we need more imported organic products from overseas. We already import organics from more than 100 foreign countries. The cost of transporting these imports inflates prices, uses more petroleum, and steals money away from American farmers. One of the reasons behind this is that there is not enough support for farmers switching from conventional to organic farming.
Why It’s Hard for Farmers to Go Organic
As of 2011, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) reports that only 1.3% of all farmland is organic. They also report that one of the major roadblocks is the cost involved with organic certification and the maintenance of it. While it sounds simple enough for a farmer to transition from conventional to organic crops, the reality is that this takes time and effort. The USDA requires a three-year transition period for organic certification. How can small business farmers survive that transition period without income?
The 2014 Farm Act and Organic Farming
In April 2014, the Agricultural Act of 2014, or 2014 Farm Act, was signed into law. This Act has been passed every 5 or so years since the Depression. According to the USDA, the current Act has expanded organic funding to “assist organic producers and handlers with the cost of organic certification”, raising it from $22 million in 2008 to $57.5 million. This is a great start for farmers who want to get going with organic farming, but it’s not enough. Supporting the cost of certification does not cover the loss of wages farmer suffer during the transition period required for the land to rest and heal from pesticides.
The problem with the Farm Act, though, are the subsidies it pays farmers for damaged crops or when demand is low. The latest bill has made changes that make it easier for farmers to get crop insurance to cover a larger variety of crops than before – these are tax-payer funded, uncapped and unlimited. These subsidies tend to benefit larger, corporate farms over smaller farms. Ariane Lotti, assistant policy director at National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC), told Rodale News that the Act will “make it difficult for beginning farmers to access land and establish and grow a business.” And Iowa State economist Bruce Babcock believes this means subsidy payouts will rise – to more than $20 billion.
These crop subsidies eat away a large portion of the budget for the Farm Act, money we could use to support organic farming and invest in creating a more robust American organic economy. The Farm Act could be changed to help farmers survive that three-year transition and other problems these farmers face. For example, thanks to Monsanto’s cross-contamination, even organic soy farmers in the U.S. cannot always ensure their products are free of GMOs. Those farmers, too, need support to survive their crop’s contamination.
So where does this leave families who are looking for more organic choices? Buying those imported organic products, yet again. The USDA reports that in 2013, we imported $1.4 billion dollars worth of organics including tropical fruits, coffee, and olive oil. Even more interesting is that we also import organic soybeans – the seed that is owned and operated by Monsanto here in the states and typically genetically modified or coming from contaminated organic farms.
There is also the question of the safety of imported organics. For example, some countries, like China, have a high average of heavy-metal laden farmlands and water. That means that while organic food originating from there may still meet USDA’s very rigid specifications, it may be more toxic than locally grown food.
The 2014 Farm Act has shown some progress in helping organic farmers, but it doesn’t go far enough. Reducing these subsidies and investing more in our own farmers can help bring more American grown organics to your table rather than importing organics from abroad. That can help build a stronger American economy with a healthy future. You can help by building the organic market even more with your dollar. Support American-made organic foods and brands – and keep on eye on the Farm Act as it goes forward.