Our food system is in peril, with growing instability in agriculture due to climate change, widespread food insecurity, and a continued reliance on chemicals that threaten health and the environment. It’s time to give more attention (and resources) to tried and tested solutions. Organic farming is an ideal starting point.
The new NRDC report, Grow Organic: The Climate, Health, and Economic Cases for Expanding Organic Agriculture, published in partnership with Arizona State University’s Swette Center for Sustainable Food Systems and Californians for Pesticide Reform, distills the latest scientific research into the benefits of large-scale organic farming systems and offers the insights of more than a dozen of organic farmers and ranchers around the world. the country working on all scales of organic farming. It also explains the pitfalls of our current agricultural system and provides concrete policy recommendations on how to maximize the benefits of organic.
Our climate, our health and our economies need more organic farming
Unlike conventional agriculture, which relies on fossil fuel-intensive pesticides and fertilizers that harm human health and pollute our air, water and soil, organic agriculture is based on a set of principles and of values centered on ecological diversity, natural materials and healthy soil. . To be certified “organic,” farmers and ranchers must adhere to a set of science-based practices, rooted in Indigenous ecosystem knowledge and now defined in federal law, that treat agriculture and nature as a holistic system. and interdependent, both below and above the ground.
Organic reduces emissions and builds resilience
Organic reduces the greenhouse gas (GHG) footprint of agriculture by avoiding most fossil fuel-based inputs, and it builds climate resilience by promoting healthy soils, diversifying food crops and supporting endangered wildlife habitats and biodiversity. Data shows that organic farms emit less nitrous oxide by avoiding chemical fertilizers and pesticides commonly used in conventional agriculture, and that organic animal production generates less methane emissions compared to animal feed operations concentrate (CAFO) conventional.
By building healthy soil that retains water and stores carbon, organic farming also 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.
Organic protects and promotes health
Organic farming dramatically reduces exposure to pesticides, which cause serious acute and chronic health problems for farm workers and communities near conventional farms. Organic producers also avoid the vast majority of chemicals and other substances that are permitted in or on non-organic foods, and they limit contamination of waterways from fertilizers and waste.
Organic contributes to prosperity and revitalizes communities
Organic creates significant economic vitality and growth for farmers and farming communities. Researchers have identified “organic hotspots” in the United States where increased organic production generates new jobs, reduces unemployment, and stimulates the growth of agricultural businesses in a region. An emerging generation of young farmers are discovering that organic farming can be both productive and profitable, allowing these farmers to stay in business and increase production for local and regional markets.
Organic agriculture needs federal (and state) support to reach its full potential
Unfortunately, federal investments in technical assistance, research and commercialization have not matched the steady and rapid growth of the organic sector. For example, in 2021, the The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) spent only 2% of its organic research budget.
A significant increase in funding for organic agriculture – through the Farm Bill and across the federal government – is long overdue, especially as farmers and ranchers become more interested in the practices. sustainability and resilience to climate change. We must expand existing programs that support organic farming and ranching, develop new ones, and ensure that organic is for everyone, including producers and communities of color who have not been served. equitably by federal agricultural policies or our food system. Our report offers detailed policy recommendations to maximize the potential of organic agriculture, including:
Reducing barriers to organic: Producers who wish to obtain organic certification must undertake a long, difficult and financially risky process, usually with little government support. We need more resources that support organic transition, especially for Black, Indigenous, and Other People of Color (BIPOC). We must also devote a fair share of research, technical assistance and other public investment to agriculture to facilitate the path to organic certification.
Advancing Equity in Organic Agriculture: BIPOC producers face unique and significant barriers within the organic sector, which must be addressed to ensure that the organic sector represents and serves diverse communities. Congress and the USDA should prioritize an array of targeted services for under-resourced geographies and communities, including the Southeast, tribes, and non-English-speaking producers.
Expand markets and increase access to organic products: The federal government can help develop organic food markets and increase access to healthy foods by leveraging its own purchasing power. Organic should be a priority in all government food programs and agency buying advice.
Consider “real costs” in policy making: Current processes for assessing the pros and cons of our public investments tend to weigh the private economic benefits to business against the public costs of environmental, health and social damages, if those costs are even taken into account. Instead, the USDA should analyze the full costs and benefits of policies to better align public investments with public benefits.
After 20 years of federally regulated organic production, with minimal public support and funding, the organic sector has already exceeded expectations, growing at a rate far exceeding that of heavily subsidized conventional production. Making organic a national priority is an essential investment in our future.