In the produce section of the supermarket, on the menu at the corner restaurant, and at the farmers market, the evidence is clear.
Organic food, once a niche product, is becoming – literally in many cases – a bread-and-butter staple for consumers.
When we began organic farming in 1999, we did it for a number of reasons. Farmers across California recognized the need to break from conventional agriculture and start rebuilding our soil. We all had different reasons but understood the need to protect our shared environment, and our rich and diverse state.
A recent study found that more than four out of five U.S. consumers say they purchase at least some organic food. What was a $3.6 billion industry in 1997 soared to a $50 billion industry by 2017, and its growth continues to outpace that of overall food sales.
It is a trend driven in large measure by generational preference. Millennials, defined as adults from 18 to 37, make up 42 percent of organic consumers. They will continue to drive the marketplace throughout their lives.
The table is set for robust growth in the organic foods market. Not only is there strong consumer demand, but there is also a trusted regulatory framework to certify organic practices to solidify consumer confidence.
As this revolution in consumer preferences unfolds, California agriculture is presented with an opportunity it has only begun to tap. Despite rapid growth in organic food production, only 4 percent of all agricultural land in the state is being farmed organically.
There are a multitude of reasons why California should seize the opportunity to allow this new generation of consumers to lead us to a more prosperous, healthier, cleaner future.
In a report released Feb. 27 at our conference in Fresno, the California Certified Organic Farmers Foundation has compiled a comprehensive review of the economic, social, public health and environmental benefits that organic farming is producing, and could produce on a far grander scale.
The report, phase one of the “Roadmap to an Organic California,” issues a call for California to increase organic production to 10 percent of all farmland by 2030.
The report analyzes hundreds of peer-reviewed scientific studies to present an impressive inventory of the benefits that organic agriculture creates for California and the nation.
Some of those benefits may surprise you, for they extend far beyond simply producing healthy, nutritious food.
In the Central Valley, the economic benefits are particularly compelling. Organic is the fastest-growing sector of the U.S. food industry, and the premium crop prices that organic products garner support the viability of California farmers.
In addition, more than a third of organic farms market their food directly to consumers, which stimulates local employment.
Research shows that organic farming is helping to attract new farmers to an aging industry. The U.S. Department of Food and Agriculture reports that proportionately more beginning farmers are starting organic farms than conventional farms.
The environmental benefits are many, and not all are the result of reduced use of synthetic pesticides, though this does produce benefits: safeguarding bees and other pollinators from harmful exposure, reducing the leaching of pesticides into waterways, and protecting farmers and farmworkers from routine exposure to harmful chemicals.
Beyond that, organic farming practices build long-term soil fertility. As a result, organic soils store more nutrients, including carbon, which in the atmosphere becomes the leading contributor to climate change.
A UC Davis study found that after 10 years, organic systems resulted in 14 times the rate of carbon sequestration as conventional systems.
This roadmap shows the many desirable destinations to which a surge in organic farming can lead California.
What we need now– and what we are calling upon policymakers, community leaders and non-governmental organizations to design – are policies that use organic agriculture as a practical, evidence-based approach to solving the complex challenges facing California today.
As the nation’s leader in organic farming, California is ready for all communities to have access to organic food and for all of California to benefit from organic agriculture.
In so many ways, that would be a healthy thing.