Surging consumer demand for organic foods has created an opportunity for California to expand organic food production.
That is the finding of a comprehensive report released Wednesday by California Certified Organic Farmers (CCOF) at its annual conference in Fresno. The report, titled Roadmap to an Organic California: Benefits Report distills the findings of more than 300 peer-reviewed scientific studies to document a wide-ranging inventory of benefits that an expansion of organic farming could bring to California.
Based on the report’s findings, the organization calls upon state and local policymakers, community leaders, and non-profit organizations to help put California on a path to increase the acreage of organic food production from 4 percent of the state’s farmland today to 10 percent by 2030.
“Organic food production is an opportunity to stimulate the state’s economy, promote public health, and protect our natural resources,” said Kelly Damewood, the organic farmers’ CEO. “The report finds that organic agriculture provides evidence-based solutions to the nation’s complex challenges by promoting healthy, carbon-storing soils while also driving strong economic returns and improving public health and prosperity,” said Damewood.
The organic foods industry has experienced phenomenal growth in recent years, climbing from U.S. sales of less than $4 billion in 1997 to more than $50 billion today. Sales of organic products are growing at a rate six times greater than the overall growth in food sales.
In California alone, sales of organic commodities and processed foods totaled $14.55 billion in 2017. California produces 38 percent of the country’s organic farm gate value.
Research shows that more than 80 percent of U.S. households purchase at least some organic foods, and they are now on the shelves of nearly every major food retailer. Demographic trends indicate sustained growth lies ahead, as market research shows that organic products are most in demand among young adults of the Millennial generation.
The report presents scientific evidence that shows organic farming to be a practical tool for reducing poverty, stimulating local economies, protecting and enhancing public health, and ensuring a food-secure future. It shows that it is time for all communities to have access to organic food and for all of California to benefit from organic agriculture.
California, already the national leader accounting for more than a third of all organic food sales in the nation, is uniquely poised to benefit from this strong trend in consumer demand. Not only does California have a robust foundation from which to build, it is the only state with its own program to support the USDA’s National Organic Program, which sets the standards for organic production that ensure consumer confidence in the organic label.
“Representing a district with so much organic produce has given me the opportunity to see the benefits of organic farming first hand,” said Assemblymember Mark Stone (D-Santa Cruz). ”Since California is the largest producer of organic foods, it is important to understand the economic, public health, and environmental benefits of organic farming. I hope California can utilize this report to encourage this organic farming trend. Not only does the market for organic produce keep growing, the environmental and consumer benefits of organic farming equal healthier soil and waterways and healthier produce.”
The report details a variety of benefits that organic production is generating — and could generate on a far larger scale.
Among the report’s key findings:
ECONOMIC BENEFITS: Because of the value consumers place on organic foods, they command a premium price for crops and livestock, boosting the viability of farm production. Studies show that economic activity generated by farmers who sell their goods directly to consumers — as do 39 percent of organic farmers — is twice that generated by farmers who sell through retailers.
The opportunities for economic growth extend far beyond the fields and pastures of organic farmers. California’s organic processed foods sector — the state’s third-largest manufacturing sector — grew by 17 percent between 2016-2017. Sales of organic condiments grew by 18 percent and organic beverages by 10 percent.
In addition, organic farms generate more stable, year-round jobs for farm workers.
Research shows that counties with high concentrations of organic farming generally have lower unemployment rates, higher median household incomes, and lower poverty rates.
HEALTH BENEFITS: The report cites a growing body of evidence that shows organic food is highly nutritious and has significantly lower levels of pesticide residue and antibiotic-resistant bacteria than conventional food.
Because organic farming uses dramatically fewer synthetic pesticides than conventional farming, it reduces public exposure to harmful chemicals — especially for farmers, farm workers, and the increasing number of urban residents who live less than a mile from agricultural fields.
Numerous studies associate prenatal and childhood pesticide exposure with cognitive problems such as Attention Deficit Disorder, as well as increased risks of diabetes, asthma, and autism spectrum disorders.
ENVIRONMENTAL BENEFITS: While both conventional and organic fertilizers can leach into waterways and cause pollution, evidence shows that good organic management reduces nitrogen leaching from farms, reducing by as much as 50 percent the leaching of this common water pollutant.
In addition, climate scientists urge that farmers adopt common organic farming practices such as crop diversification and cover cropping to create healthier soils that sequester more carbon. Substantial evidence shows that organic soils reduce greenhouse gas emissions — a benefit of particular importance of California, which must meet statewide goals to reduce those emissions.
Roadmap to an Organic California was funded with support from Patagonia and the Clarence E. Heller Charitable Foundation.