Organic agriculture in perspective


Western Farm Press
By Harry Cline, Farm Press Editorial Staff
May 18, 2009

Conventional, non-organic agriculture announced that it accounted for 96.5 percent of all food product sales in the U.S. last year.

There was no announcement like that, but there should have been under the heading “rest of the story,” as Paul Harvey long trumpeted.

What will make it into newspapers and on television is the hyperbole-laden news release from the Organic Trade Association (OTA) that organic food sales grew in 2008 by 15.8 percent to reach $22.9 billion. Organic food sales now account for approximately 3.5 percent of all food product sales in the United States, according to OTA, which commissioned a research company to uncover the statistics.


Using relatively simple math most of us can understand, that means just plain old farmers produced the other 96.5 percent of the food products sold in the U.S.

Christine Bushway, OTA’s executive director, describes the 3.5 percent market/15.8 percent increase as a milestone. If you are talking about increasing the value of a million dollars by almost 16 percent, you’re talking milestone. If you are talking about increasing a roll of pennies by 16 percent, it rates an asterisk.

I have nothing against organic farming. It is part of California production agriculture, a fact OTA refuses to acknowledge in its propaganda. The largest and most successful organic growers are part of that 96.5 percent who produce food and fiber conventionally, as well.

OTA has complained about “corporate farms” gaining a greater share of the organic market. Fact is there would be no widespread availability of organic products without those non-organic producers incorporating certified, organic production into their operation for one purpose — to make money.

Most agchem/fertilizer retailers, wholesalers and manufacturers offer organically certified products, again because long time customers are farming some organic acres.

Organic food sales are not significant in the overall scheme of food and fiber production. It is a niche market and always will be.

The $22.8 billion in organic food sales is little more than a drop in the bucket. For example the combined farm gate sales — not consumer sales — of crops grown each year in Fresno, Tulare, Kern, Monterey, Merced, Stanislaus, San Joaquin, Kings and Ventura counties are more than all the consumer sales OTA claims to be organic.

Consumer sales from what is produced in those nine California counties would at least double, if not triple, farm gate totals.

OTA gets a lot of publicity, but it is such a small outfit it should warrant ignoring. OTA claims 1,600 members including “growers, shippers, processors, certifiers, farmers’ associations, distributors, importers, exporters, consultants, retailers and others.” By comparison there are 4,000 growers who hold applicator permits with the Fresno County agricultural commissioner’s office.

Organic food has evolved from a philosophy embraced by a society of counterculturists to a legitimate part of American production agriculture.

I have been surprised it has lasted this long. Probably 20 years ago the organic fanatics made a run at the mass market. It failed. It has succeeded this time. However, the only reason organics are growing is that the products are being provided by conventional growers.

For the sake of commercial agriculture, I hope people continue to pay more for organic.

However, let’s keep organic in perspective.

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