Markets Struggle to Keep Up with Organic Food Demand

Donna Sundblad's picture

Organic consumers are on the rise, but supermarkets are having trouble keeping their shelves stocked to keep up with demand.

More of us are turning to organic foods than ever before for a number of different reasons. In 2004 organic sales amounted to about $11 billion and in 2012 sales were estimated at $27 billion according to the Nutrition Business Journal. While markets for organic vegetables, fruits, and herbs have been developing for decades in the U.S. the Farm Belt isn't going organic fast enough to keep up with swelling consumer demand.

The Organic Difference
Organic means a product is raised, grown, and processed without the use of synthetic fertilizers, herbicides, insecticides, fungicides, antibiotics or hormones. Decades ago this used to be standard practice, but today conventional farms use all of the above. Only farmers who grow food following the USDA organic standards and become certified by an independent third party accredited agent can actually label their foods "certified organic." Federal standards require farmers to omit the use of processed fertilizers and chemical weed killers for 3 years before crops can be certified organic, but small farms with less than $5,000 in annual sales are the exception. Many farmers are reluctant to add all these extra steps to their workload.

Shortage of Organic Commodities
Because farms aren't going organic fast enough to keep up with growing demand, its forcing those who make organic foods to look abroad to China and India for key commodities like corn and soybeans. While the U.S. is the world's largest producer and exporter of these crops which are largely organic supplies used in animal feed in the production of organic dairy and meat are lacking. Imports of these kinds of beans were more than $100 million last year, but organic food producers have concerns over food safety, especially when it comes to China which has a history of food-related scandals.

Organic food companies say fewer farmers are adding organic acres of corn and soybeans and some who were growing organic have returned to the use of pesticides and processed fertilizer. These changes result in limited supplies and higher prices for feed. This translates to less profit and higher retail prices to consumers. Turning to foods grown abroad is also a concern because organic food makers worry it could be viewed as a negative by consumers who equate organic with locally-grown food.

Why People Turn to Organic Foods
Many people turn to organic as a more natural and nutritious food choice, but probably the biggest draw to eating organic fruits, vegetables, and other products is that they harbor significantly less pesticide residues than conventional chemically grown products. Some of these pesticides have been linked with breast cancer, uterine cancer, and asthma. Many people with food allergies find their symptoms diminish or disappear if they limit their diet to organic foods.

People buy organic for reasons other than health, too. They are looking for food production that is gentle to the earth. Not everyone believes organic is better nutritionally or environmentally. This is one of the reasons many farmers are reluctant to convert to the extra standards and hard work required to grow organic.

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