Organic Farming - Controversies, Entry Barriers, Benefits, and Examples
Alfalfa, wheat, and hay are the most planted organic crops in the United States, partially because of their role in crop rotation. Details on controversies, barriers, and benefits of organic farming are provided below.
- There are legitimate concerns that the USDA Organic label may be on foods that are not actually organic due to a lack of oversight by the National Organic Program (NOP) of the USDA. One example is three farmers that pleaded guilty to food fraud in 2018 after passing off conventionally grown corn and soybeans as organic. The Washington Post published an article in mid 2017, that is unfortunately paywalled, that went in depth on problems with the inspection system.
- This was chosen as a controversy because if consumers can't trust that food labeled organic actually is organic, then the industry will be at risk. Studies show that the review and inspection process can be improved which can increase trust in the labels. Currently, only 26% of consumers trust organic food labels.
- Although importing organic food in and of itself is not controversial, the issue arises because there are concerns around whether the imported food is actually meeting U.S. organic standards. One concern is that there are some foods that "are routinely sprayed with chemicals during the process of clearing customs." Additionally, there is a problem with fraud regarding imported crops, with grain feed being one area that has had a particular problem.
- This was chosen as a controversy because fraudulent organic products can erode the public's trust in the organic label which will ultimately hurt the farmers. Trust in the food regulatory authorities in the U.S. has already suffered some erosion.
- For conventional farmers who wish to transition to producing organic crops and receive certification, there is a three-year period where they must farm using organic standards, but they will not be eligible for certification. Due to the increased expenses associated with farming organically, this period without certification can be costly. The farm will not have the benefit of the organic label but is still expected to follow all organic regulations.
- Another reason this transition period is costly to farmers is that the crop yield usually decreases, so they have less product to sell. This period of increased costs and reduced income can be a barrier for farmers who want to transition to organic production.
- To receive organic certification, the record-keeping requirements are extensive as compared to what is expected of conventional farmers. These records include things like crop inputs, crop rotation, and how they plan to keep organic crops from being tainted by conventional crop management.
- Additionally, for farms that produce both organic and conventional crops, separate storage areas are required to avoid contamination.
- The learning curve for growing organic crops can be a significant obstacle for farmers who have spent their lives growing conventional crops. There is not a robust support system to learn the new techniques needed, although there has been some improvement in this area in recent years.
- All these items mean increased costs, which can keep farmers from making the jump to organic farming.
- In early 2018, it was reported that "organic farming is much more efficient at recycling nitrogen than conventional farming," which is ultimately very good for the environment. The study found that between 80% and 95% of organic crops nitrogen needs are met by recycled nitrogen sources, including compost and manure. Conventional crops rely much more heavily on newly created nitrogen, such as from synthetic fertilizers.
- There are also other environmental benefits of organic farming which include reducing soil erosion; reducing human and animal exposure to toxic chemicals; and maintaining and improving soil structure.
Most Planted Crops
- Alfalfa and hay together accounted for 35% of all harvested organic crops in the United States in 2019. The main reason for this is that both of these crops are utilized as rotational crops to maintain soil integrity.
- Wheat is another crop that is used as a rotational crop in some locations, typically in the central Plains. However, wheat is also a crop planted for human consumption, and it accounts for about 19% of the overall organic acreage in the U.S.
- Since not all crops planted are done so for human consumption, additional data on the largest organic crops based on sales was also found. This data indicates that annual revenue from organic apples is $327 million, followed by lettuce at $277 million, strawberries at $242 million, and grapes at $218 million. This data does not indicate what portion of sales are due to domestically grown versus imported crops.