One way to address all of these concerns is to expand organic agriculture. 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.
The EU’S Farm to Fork plan
The European Union’s Farm to Fork strategy, often described as the heart of the European Green Deal, was adopted in 2020 and strengthened in October 2021. It sets forth ambitious 2030 targets: a 50% cut in greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture, a 50% cut in pesticide use and a 20% cut in fertilizer use.
Recognizing that organic production can make important contributions to these goals, the policy calls for increasing the percentage of EU farmland under organic management from 8.1% to 25% by 2030. The European Parliament has adopted a detailed organic plan to achieve this goal.
Today the U.S. is the world’s largest organic marketplace, with US$51 billion in sales in 2019. But the EU is not far behind, at $46 billion, and if it achieves its Farm to Fork targets, it is likely to become the global leader.
And that ambition is reflected in national food policies. For example, in Copenhagen 88% of ingredients in meals served at the city’s 1,000 public schools are organic. Similarly, in Italy school meals in more than 13,000 schools countrywide contain organic ingredients.
The U.S. strategy is technology-driven
In contrast with the EU, the U.S. has no plan at the national level for expanding organic production, or even a plan to make a plan.
Less than 1% of U.S. farmland – about 5.6 million acres (2.3 million hectares) is farmed according to national organic standards, compared with 36 million acres (14.6 million hectares) in the EU. This small sector doesn’t produce enough organic food to meet consumer demand, so much of the organic food consumed in the U.S. is imported from nearly 45,000 foreign operations. While the U.S. government tracks imports of only 100 organic food products – a small sliver of what comes in – spending in 2020 on these items alone exceeded $2.5 billion.
I see this gap as a huge missed opportunity. President Biden has called for a “Buy American” strategy to bolster the U.S. economy, but today consumers are spending money on organic imports without reaping the environmental or economic benefits of having more land under organic management. More domestic production would improve soil and water quality and create jobs in rural areas.
Addressing agriculture’s role in climate change means changing how nations produce, process, transport, consume and waste food. I believe that when leaders call for cutting-edge, science-based solutions, they need to embrace and support a broad spectrum of science, including agroecology – sustainable farming that works with nature and reduces reliance on external inputs like fertilizers and pesticides.
The Biden-Harris administration could do this by developing a comprehensive plan to realize the untapped potential of organic agriculture, with clear goals and strategies to increase organic production and with it, the number of organic farmers. Consumers are ready to buy what U.S. organic farmers raise.
Kathleen Merrigan directs the Swette Center for Sustainable Food Systems at Arizona State University, which receives funding from the Organic Trade Association. She is co-director of a project on inadvertent chemical contamination of organic crops funded by the US Department of Agriculture. Merrigan is a member of the Advisory Committee for the Organic Farming Research Foundation. She also is an advisor to S2G Ventures and a Venture Partner at Astanor Ventures, two agtech firms that have some organic companies in their much broader portfolios. As a US Senate staffer, Merrigan drafted the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990. She has served on the National Organic Standards Board, as Administrator of the USDA Agricultural Marketing Service and as Deputy Secretary of Agriculture.