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19/02/2021

The Pandemic Has Given Organics a Big Boost

When COVID-19 forced communications consultant Kyle Freund and his wife to work from home this spring, the Madison, Wisconsin couple and their 5-year-old daughter began seeking out organic produce from small local farms. They stopped patronizing large supermarkets, shopped only at the co-op, and subscribed to a community supported agriculture (CSA) program through a nearby farm.

“It’s become a priority for us, knowing where our food comes from,” said Freund.

He’s not the only one. For all the disruptions it has caused, the COVID-19 pandemic has been a boon to organic food sales, with sales increasing in double digits and outpacing conventional produce sales—a phenomenon that has been touted by the organic industry.

But the image of Americans flocking to buy organic produce at farmers’ markets and through CSA programs is somewhat misleading when it comes to the growth of organics, according to some food advocates.

Direct-to-consumer organic produce sales, which have skyrocketed during the pandemic, still account for a very small percentage of overall organic sales. Instead, far from the ideal of small family operations feeding local communities, much of the recent growth has come from industrial-scale farms.

Linley Dixon, a small organic farmer in Durango, Colorado and the associate director with the Real Organic Project, says that large organic agribusinesses are squeezing out small and mid-size farmers and taking over the industry.

“My concern is that the shelf space for real organic is usurped by industrial, shallow organic,” Dixon said. “What people really want is real organic: soil-grown and pasture-raised.”

But others in the industry say those large-scale organic farms bring important benefits.

“The idyllic five-acre organic farm that only sells within a five-mile radius won’t feed many people. Shouldn’t organic be something people of all incomes can avail themselves of?” said Kathleen Merrigan, executive director of the Swette Center for Sustainable Food Systems at Arizona State University and former U.S. deputy agriculture secretary.

Pandemic Accelerates Growth of Organics

The U.S. organic food sector has seen steady growth in recent years. New data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS) 2019 Certified Organic Survey shows the number of certified organic farms increased by 17 percent to 16,500 between 2016 and 2019, and the number of certified acres rose by 10 percent to 5.5 million.

The survey shows sales of certified organic commodities—produce, livestock and poultry products—were up 31 percent from 2016, when the previous survey was conducted. The largest organic farms (with sales of $500,000 or more) accounted for just 17 percent of all organic farms but represented 84 percent of all sales.

Overall, organic food sales have doubled over the past decade to $50.1 billion in 2019, according to the 2020 Organic Industry Survey released by the Organic Trade Association (OTA). Nearly 6 percent of the food Americans now eat is organic.

COVID-induced pantry loading has further expedited that trend, with organic food growth in the double digits month after month, consistently outpacing the growth of conventional food.

In March, total organic produce sales increased by 22 percent from the previous year—growth that was significantly above the increases of January and February of this year. Organic sales could likely have been higher, said the report, but they were hampered by the limited supplies of food in supermarkets.

Even after the initial panic-buying, organic produce sales continued to grow during the second quarter of the year, again exceeding growth rates for conventional produce.

Organic fruit and vegetable sales increased 17 percent from April through June, as compared to the same time period last year. Bananas, carrots, and apples—which have the smallest organic premiums and also are more shelf-stable—saw the highest produce sales by volume.

Some consumers, like Freund, the Madison consultant, upped their support for small organic farmers because they “can provide safer, more distributed networks and avoid some of the bumps and shortages the global supply chain experienced this spring,” Freund said.

Source and full article: https://civileats.com/2020/10/23/the-pandemic-has-given-organics-a-big-boost-but-most-profits-arent-flowing-to-small-producers/

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