Organic agriculture and policy

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Why does organic matter?

Organic advances climate-smart agriculture

Organic agriculture reduces the greenhouse gas footprint of farming by eliminating most fossil fuel–based inputs, and it builds climate resilience by promoting healthy soils, diversifying food crops, and supporting threatened wildlife habitats and biodiversity. Data shows that organic farming emits less nitrous oxide by avoiding chemical fertilizers and pesticides commonly used in conventional agriculture, and organic livestock production leads to fewer methane emissions compared with conventional concentrated animal feeding operations. By building healthy soils that retain water and store carbon, organic agriculture builds resilience and stabilizes our food supply in the face of drought and other extreme weather conditions that will occur with increasing frequency in a changing climate.

Swette Center PhD student, Erica Martin, at Duncan Family Farms in Goodyear, AZ
Organic attracts NextGen farmers and ranchers

A growing number of young and beginning farmers are committing to organic practices – organic seems to be a lure into American agriculture at a time when we need to repopulate our working lands. The 2017 Census of Agriculture reported that the average age of producers for all farms was 57.5 years, while that of organic farmers was 50.5 years. Perhaps more significantly, these organic farmers are much more likely to farm full time. This promising shift to organic farming is particularly important as farmers age out and a new generation produces the nation’s food.

Organic promotes American grown

US consumer demand for organic far outstrips supply. Given an insufficient domestic supply, many US companies have no choice but to import organic products. President Biden has emphasized the importance of American Made, issuing an Executive Order to promote rebuilding sectors that employ American workers. Organic should be a focus in this effort. Americans spend at least $2.2 billion annually on imported organic food according to the International Trade Commission. The USDA Foreign Agriculture Service assesses organic trade across the globe and has identified a key threat: India is looking to increase cropland to export to the US which could potentially eclipse domestic organic market opportunities, suggesting urgent action.

How does the Swette Center prioritize organic?

Swette Center reports on organic

Thinking in Time: Reflections from Organic Leaders

More than three decades ago, the US Congress passed the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990, the law that established national organic standards. To mark this milestone, the Swette Center reached out to ‘organic elders’ as well as next generation organic leaders to hear their stories and reflections on accomplishments to date and challenges ahead. Our forthcoming report captures some of their key insights and helpful advice on how to grow organic.

Throughout fall 2021 and spring 2022, organic stakeholders were invited to a series of virtual workshops to discuss the future of organic. A synthesis report is forthcoming, and the complete lists of stakeholders’ comments can be viewed here.

Report coming soon!

Grow Organic: The Climate, Health, and Economic Case for Expanding Organic Agriculture

This 2022 report, published in partnership with the Natural Resources Defense Council and Californians for Pesticide Reform, distills the latest scientific research on the wide-reaching benefits of organic farming systems and offers insights from more than a dozen organic farmers and ranchers around the country working at every scale of organic. It also explains the pitfalls of our current agricultural system and provides concrete policy recommendations on how to maximize the benefits of organic.

The Critical To-Do List for Organic Agriculture

In 2020, the Swette Center for Sustainable Food Systems launched a strategic, collaborative, multi-leader, and multi-pronged project to advance organic agriculture in the new Biden Administration and in the forthcoming farm bill currently being debated by Congress. The Critical To-Do List for Organic Agriculture sought to provide policy recommendations to the Biden Administration (46 recommendations for the 46th President) to better support the growing organic industry and its positive impacts on human health, on the economy, and on climate.

Organic Innovation

Organic continues to be one of the fastest growing sectors in the United States.This year marks 30 years since enactment of the Organic Foods Production Act.This report is a compilation of opportunities for organic innovation – it is an organic innovation catalogue – and deep dives on specific opportunities that may be of interest for the Organic Trade Association, or others, to pursue as distinct initiatives.

Organic partnerships

Transition to Organic Partnership

The Swette Center for Sustainable Food Systems is serving as the state lead for USDA’s Transition to Organic Partnership Program (TOPP) in Arizona. We are working with the Western Regional Center for Organic Transition, led by California Certified Organic Partners, and partners across the state to develop farmer-to-farmer mentorship program, technical assistance and workforce training events and materials over the five years of the project.

The Swette Center is also leading the country’s data collection and monitoring efforts to create a learning environment that aids partners throughout the region in understanding their impact and making the most of this historic investment in the future of organic agriculture.

Articles on organic from Kathleen Merrigan, Swette Center Executive Director

Organic food has become mainstream but still has room to grow

Aug 17, 2021

“Today over half of organic sales are in conventional grocery store chains, club stores and supercenters; Walmart, Costco, Kroger, Target and Safeway are the top five organic retailers.

Surveys show that 82% of Americans buy some organic food, and availability has improved. So why do overall organic sales add up to a mere 6% of all food sold in the U.S.?”

– Kathleen Merrigan,
Swette Center Executive Director

Unlike the US, Europe is setting ambitious targets for producing more organic food

Nov 3, 2021

“Organic production generates fewer greenhouse gas emissions than conventional farming, largely because it doesn’t use synthetic nitrogen fertilizer. And it prohibits using synthetic pesticides and giving hormones or antibiotics to livestock.

But the U.S. isn’t currently setting the bar high for growing its organic sector. Across the Atlantic, Europe has a much more focused, aggressive strategy.”

– Kathleen Merrigan,
Swette Center Executive Director

Fertilizer prices are soaring – and that’s an opportunity to promote more sustainable ways of growing crops

June 14, 2022

“Farmers are coping with a fertilizer crisis brought on by soaring fossil fuel prices and industry consolidation. The price of synthetic fertilizer has more than doubled since 2021, causing great stress in farm country.

This crunch is particularly tough on those who grow corn, which accounts for half of U.S. nitrogen fertilizer use.”

– Kathleen Merrigan,
Swette Center Executive Director

  • Arizona food systems

    Arizona food systems

    Being based in Arizona, it’s only natural that supporting our home state’s food system is a top priority for the Swette Center.  Arizona’s food system faces unique challenges due to the state’s arid climate and water scarcity. However, Arizona also presents opportunities for innovative approaches to promote sustainable food production and distribution.

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  • Engaging the private sector

    Engaging the private sector

    Engaging businesses, including food companies, retailers, agricultural technology providers and investors, in food systems brings valuable expertise and innovation capabilities that are essential for driving sustainable change. Collaborative partnerships between governments, civil society and the private sector can leverage the strengths of each sector to build resilient and inclusive food systems.

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  • Empowering Indigenous foodways

    Empowering Indigenous foodways

    Indigenous foodways hold immense importance as they represent the culmination of centuries of wisdom, culture and sustainable practices. They are the embodiment of indigenous communities’ deep connection to their lands, traditional knowledge and ancestral heritage. By preserving and revitalizing indigenous foodways, we aim to honor and celebrate the cultural diversity and resilience of indigenous peoples.

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