Organic agriculture is now a billion-dollar industry. RAFI’s Just Foods Program has been at the forefront of the organic movement for decades. The long-term success of the organic market as a viable, transparent mechanism requires a coordinated effort to plan ahead and work proactively, rather than merely reacting to policy, programs and industry changes.
At RAFI, our view is that organic offers the best agricultural approach for meaningful long-term solutions to the continuing and escalating environmental challenges facing our planet. As such, the organization has a very long history and body of work, tracing back to the early 1970’s, on the development, promotion and protection of organic farming, both domestically as well as internationally.
Through RAFI’s experience with the farm crisis of the 1980’s, it was clear that just having better credit terms was simply not enough to make farming sustainable—we needed rewards for stewardship. In response, RAFI’s Just Foods program helped develop the Sustainable Agricultural Research and Education Program and was a key advocate for the Organic Foods Act of 1990. RAFI’s Michael Sligh served as the founding chair of the National Organic Standards Board, an entity responsible for the setting of US organic standards.
In the late 1990’s, RAFI recognized the need for a farmer-centered, multi-sector national coalition to focus on protecting all of the progress made through passing and implementing the historic organic law. The National Organic Coalition (NOC), for which RAFI serves as the fiscal sponsor, was created to provide leadership on public policy issues. Today, NOC promotes and defends public policies that reward and encourage organic farming practices and ensure the USDA administers this program in a fair, transparent and credible manner.
In 2008, RAFI’s Just Foods program organized a series of dialogues across the country to hear from stakeholders about what was working, and not working, for organic and where we needed to go in the future. The dialogues engaged collaborators from across the organic community including farmers, farm workers, regional processors and retailers, concerned consumers and others. These historic dialogue meetings engaged more than 300 participants from 28 states at 11 venues across the country.
Topics discussed during these events included what is working well in organic food and agriculture, problems in organic agriculture, strategies for strengthening farmer and consumer voices in organic policy, opportunities and challenges in the changing organic marketplace, benchmarks of a successful organic market, and more. Results of these dialogues were compiled into a working draft Action Plan, called “Towards a National Organic Action Plan.”
In February of 2009, RAFI convened the NOAP National Summit to review the results of the regional dialogue meetings. The result was a first ever “National Organic Action Plan (NOAP)“ – a highly detailed document articulating a clear vision and plan for the future of organic food and agriculture in the United States.
Published in January 2010, NOAP established a broad set of goals to guide organic agriculture in the United States over a span of ten years, and established verifiable and meaningful benchmarks at the federal, state, marketplace, and civil society levels that can be used to track progress in the organic movement. Several of the NOAP’s key action goals have already been embraced at the federal level, including USDA setting specific goals for increasing the number of organic farms.
Organic agriculture is now a multi-billion dollar industry. U.S. sales of organic food and beverages have grown from $1 billion in 1990 to $26.7 billion in 2010. These numbers are expected to grow as the “mainstreaming” of organic continues. Unfortunately, the media honeymoon for organic is over. It is now vogue to widely criticize and attack both the integrity and credibility of organic. There are significant challenges facing the future of organic, ironically most are a direct result of the success and rapid growth of organic.
Key challenges facing the future of organic include:
- Policy-makers and consumers still have a narrow understanding of organic and the multiple benefits of organic agriculture.
- The organic community needs renewed dialogue on how to create multi-sector strategies or consensus for addressing growth while protecting integrity. An example of this need is the growing polarization at NOSB meetings.
- The unregulated expansion of GMO continues to threaten contamination of organic production.
- New, young and smaller farmers are abandoning the use of the organic label.
- Organic growth in the US southern region remains doggedly slow because of issues such as lack of infrastructure, access, coordination, education and regionally appropriate seed varieties.
- Without proper labeling laws, a growing number of eco-labels and self-proclaimed “natural foods” can further confuse consumers and threaten organic markets share.
- A growing public perception that only the wealthy can afford to buy organic.
RAFI’s mission in this area of work is to defend organic integrity and to broaden the organic community to all who share the social, environmental and health values embedded in organic. We do this by developing and promoting practical strategies to preserve organic integrity, by closely collaborating with the National Organic Coalition on public policy initiatives and through our work with the National Organic Action Plan.
- Who Owns Organic? The Global Status, Prospects, and Challenges of a Changing Organic Market (2003)
- From the Margins to the Mainstream; Advancing Organic Agriculture in the U.S. The National Organic Action Plan (2010)
- Press statement: RAFI encouraged by new USDA initiatives for organic crop insurance (May 15, 2013)
- North Carolina Organic Grain Guide (2013)
- 2014 Farm Bill Analysis: Organic Agriculture (2014)
Additional Resources & Recommended Reading:
- On-farm organic variety trials in North Carolina
- 2013 NC Organic Field Day
- The Sustainability and Organic Best Practice Reference (2013)
- Organic Commodity Insurance
Through RAFI’s Just Foods Program and as a member of the Sustainable Organic Agriculture Action Network (SOAAN), an international alliance of institutions, RAFI has called for continued innovations in organic – to push the current boundaries and to fully incorporate all of the values of organic into best practices.