For additional information and reaction to the USDA's organic growth goal, please see: "Government committed to organics; growers cautious"
Federal officials have an ambitious goal to increase U.S. certified organic operations by 20% by the end of 2015, saying they want to help Americans cash in on opportunities linked to growing worldwide demand for organics.
That initiative, however, doesn’t include extra funds for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Organic Program to meet the goal.
The NOP’s list of certified organic operations in the U.S. as of January shows 17,281 total operations, an increase of 717 operations compared to 2009 when USDA deputy secretary Kathleen Merrigan announced the goal. About 10,400 of the current operations are growing crops, including fruits and vegetables. The USDA does not provide a breakdown of specific numbers of fruit and vegetable growers.
Merrigan did not respond to questions regarding the goal, but USDA communications officer Matt Herrick said fresh produce is a key element.
“We think organic produce has plenty of positive factors for increased operations, including new dietary guidelines released through the MyPlate campaign,” Herrick said.
Increasing demand for locally grown produce and expanded export opportunities with a recent organic equivalency agreement with the European Union should also help the USDA meet the growth goal, Herrick said.
Miles McEvoy, deputy administrator of the NOP, said the USDA set the “strategic goal” as part of its mission to support all agricultural efforts in the U.S. He said it doesn’t mean the USDA is endorsing organics over conventional produce.
Both McEvoy and Herrick said the goal does not interfere with the free market system. Herrick said “all relevant activities and services are within authorized and appropriated purposes.”
“The primary reason is the economic opportunities in organics, and we want U.S. farmers to have that opportunity,” McEvoy said. “The USDA has a lot of programs, and this is just one area we are supporting. The organics market is expanding, and we would rather see U.S. businesses get that business rather than it going to imports.”
He said the NOP has a three-pronged plan to meet the goal:
- Increase consumer confidence by protecting the integrity of the USDA organic seal and the organic industry with inspections and enforcement of standards;
- Train and certify more organic certifiers, producers and processors; and
- Provide information about market opportunities through the Organic Literacy Project in USDA field offices.
McEvoy said the NOP is developing field office materials with trade data it began collecting on 22 commodities in January 2011. He said he wasn’t sure of the volumes or varieties of organic produce being imported, but he is sure the USDA would rather have that produce grown in the U.S.
In particular, the USDA’s market access goal for organics is targeting the Southeast U.S. and other “underrepresented areas to expand opportunities,” according to NOP documents.
The Southeast is expected to be a challenge because the humid conditions make organic growing difficult.
However, McEvoy said, there are significant certified operations in Georgia and Florida, so he is confident other growers in the region can be successful.