This year (2021) marks the 20th anniversary of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s organic food rules. A significant anniversary for organic farmers and organic-based companies to celebrate since the USDA organic food rules allow certified companies to feature a “USDA Organic” seal on their packaging. 

This seal of approval has helped the U.S. organic food market expand from less than $8 billion in sales in 2000 to more than $50 billion in 2019. 

Of important note, the goal of the USDA Certified Organic designation simply fortifies trust in the fast-growing organic food market, it is not a guarantee of safer, healthier products. Dan Glickman, the Clinton Administration’s Secretary of Agriculture who oversaw the organics designation said decades ago as the designation process was beginning: “Let me be clear about one thing,” “It is not a statement about food safety. Nor is ‘organic’ a value judgment about nutrition or quality.”

What Makes Organics so Special?
You might then ask, “Why does organics have value?” My top list follows. 

  • The Market asks for it. When there’s demand, you’ve just found a market. 
  • Farmers and ranchers grow and raise what the market demands.
  • It’s common for smaller, organic growers to produce a wider array of fruits and vegetables since they are catering to a consumer with a variety of interests and tastes, often high-end chefs and the high-end, home-based chef. They may not just want arugula; they want a special variety of arugula. Often, the direct-market (retail) farmer can accommodate this. 
  • Organic food sales reflect this segment’s growth too. According to the Organic Trade Association, organic food sales in the United States increased by a record 12.8% in 2020 to a new high of $56.4 billion. Almost 6% of the food sold in the United States last year was certified organic.
Organic Farming in Arizona and Overall
Arizona can be proud of its organic growth and numbers from the USDA. Below are highlights from the latest Census of Agriculture numbers on organics. 
  • Arizona’s value of sales of certified organic commodities in 2019 (most recent figures available) totaled $203 million, compared to $118 million in 2016, just under a 70% increase.
  • The $203 million of sales made Arizona the 11th ranked state in terms of certified organic value of sales. 
  • Arizona has 62 certified organic farms, an increase of 24 farms from 2016. 
  • Vegetable sales account for 64% of these organic sales.
  • Overall, sales of U.S. organic agricultural production increased by 31% from 2016. 
  • U.S. farms produced and sold $9.9 billion in certified organic commodities. 
  • The number of certified organic farms in the country increased 17% and land used for certified organic production increased 9%. 
  • With $3.6 billion in certified organic sales, California continued to lead the nation in sales, accounting for 36% of the U.S. total. California also had the largest share of certified organic acres. 
  • Ten states accounted for 75% of U.S. certified organic sales, slightly less than the 77% in 2016. 
Regarding Chemicals
  • The key determinant of whether something qualifies as organic involves something rather straightforward: the production method
    1. For crops, the origin of the seed, for example, is important— it must be organically grown and cannot be the product of genetic engineering (e.g. GMOs or gene editing). 
  • Most assume organic food is grown without chemicals: All farmers – both organic and conventional – use both chemical and non-chemical pest management (or containment) methods. 
  • More than 100 fertilizers and inputs (pesticides, insecticides, or fungicides) are authorized by organic farming regulations in both Europe and the United States.
  • Organic regulations were designed to promote the use of natural chemicals over synthetic ones. But many natural chemicals do not work well-controlling pests often resulting in more applications during the growing process. 
  • And even though the absence of synthetic pesticides is often cited in support of organics, the reality is that organic farmers have gotten approval from USDA to use dozens of synthetic chemicals, from vaccines for animals to pheromones to confuse insects. 
  • Also permitted are non-synthetic pesticides, which can be less effective than synthetic pesticides and thus need to be deployed at a higher level than in non-organic farming.
  • All pesticides — synthetic or not — must meet identical safety standards and are regulated by USDA and EPA.
  • And when used according to the label, approved chemicals, synthetic or natural, do not pose meaningful health risks. 
The conclusion of food scientists at the University of California-Davis: “The marginal benefits of reducing human exposure to pesticides in the diet through increased consumption of organic produce appear to be insignificant.”
During a recent Rosie on the House show, one of Arizona’s Yuma farmers that grows both organic and conventional, John Boelts, spoke about both methods of farming and praised America’s innovative farmers regardless of their method of farming.