Groups representing organic growers are pleased with USDA’s announcement of $17.6 million in funding to support organic research but say the burgeoning industry needs much more.
USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack said the available funding, through grants from the Organic Agriculture Research and Extension Initiative, is part of USDA’s efforts to support organic producers as they respond to increasing consumer demand for organic products.
“We think it’s just terrific, but it’s just part of what we need to scale up organic production to meet the tremendous demand,” said Cathy Calfo, executive director of California Certified Organic Farmers (CCOF).
“Demand is sky high; we need more of this,” she said.
Consumer demand for organic has really emerged in the last decade, and U.S. production is just catching up. The fact that USDA is taking note is “very positive,” she said.
But more investment is needed for organic research, which has only received a small portion of USDA’s $1.1 billion research budget for 2015, unrepresentative of the 5 percent of U.S. food sales claimed by organic, she said.
“For us, any part of that is significant. In the overall budget, it’s a very small part, less than a couple percent,” she said.
With organic imports increasing, it’s important to invest in U.S. organic now to be able to turn that around in the future, she said.
The Organic Trade Association agrees, stating it is pleased with USDA’s announcement but organic research is still woefully underfunded.
“More organic research is critically needed to help organic agriculture grow in this country, and to give producers and all organic stakeholders more resources to help them make the best business decisions,” OTA said in a written statement to Capital Press.
“We appreciate USDA Secretary Vilsack’s pledge to foster organic production in the U.S., but more needs to be done. We will continue to advocate for more organic research funding and policies to increase those research dollars,” OTA stated.
In that regard, the organization petitioned USDA this past spring for an organic check-off research and promotion program.
CCOF has also been engaged in organic research efforts, meeting with the dean of UC Davis College of Ag earlier this year asking her to devote more research to organic production, Calfo said.
Organic growers are requesting research that addresses plant production, pests and soil health. There needs to be more tools to improve organic farming, and research is an important tool, she said.
Jennifer Miller, food and farm programs director with the Northwest Center for Alternatives to Pesticides, said USDA has provided important support for organic farming through several programs and initiatives and numerous projects.
The center is also pleased to see continued emphasis on plant breeding for organic systems, she said.
Farmers rely on preventative practices for managing pests on organic farms, and seeds developed under organic conditions are better able to compete with weeds and resist pests and diseases, she said.
“Consumer demand for organic foods continues to show strong growth, so even greater investment is needed to help U.S. farmers meet this market opportunity,” she said.
The purpose of the organic research and extension program is to fund high-priority research, education, and extension projects that enhance the ability of producers and processors who have already adopted organic standards to grow and market high-quality organic products, according to USDA.
Project applications for the latest round of funding are due March 10. For more information, visit www.nifa.usda.gov.