The organic food industry continues to boom, and not just in the way of increased sales, which now exceed $43 billion per year, but in the form of a higher return for organic farmers. Organic farmers are 35% more profitable than the average farm, and, in some cases, this difference makes staying on the farm possible.
Unfortunately, domestic production isn’t keeping up with consumer demand for organic products. One problem is that increased consumer demand hasn’t been met with an increase in public research investments. For example, funding for the Organic Research and Extension Initiative (OREI), the USDA’s flagship organic research program, has been relatively stagnant since 2010.
Today, a few members of Congress announced that they aim to change that. Representatives Chellie Pingree (D-ME), Dan Newhouse (R-WA), and Jimmy Panetta (D-CA) introduced the Organic Agriculture Research Act to support continued growth of the organic industry. The bill would more than double funding for OREI, increasing it from $20 million to $50 million annually. Read the press release, fact sheet, and statements of support, including by OSA.
The OREI program funds applied research projects to help organic farmers improve their production practices and respond to the needs of their customers. In the context of seed, there have been enormous returns on OREI investments, including new plant varieties that perform especially well in organic systems. (We recently described some of these successes in this post.)
As part of our State of Organic Seed project, we track investments in organic plant breeding and other organic seed research to monitor progress and identify underserved areas. We found that, since the program began, OREI has invested more than $27 million toward breeding and seed research, and the vast majority of these funds (more than 80%) were directed toward organic plant breeding projects, specifically. This is a big investment, to be sure, but demand for more research dollars for organic plant breeding – and public cultivar development, generally – is already great and only growing.
That’s why we included a recommendation to significantly increase OREI funding in our last report, and applaud the leadership of Representatives Pingree, Newhouse, and Panetta for taking legislative action to expand critical support for the fastest growing sector of our food industry. The potential to grow the organic industry for the benefit of farmers, rural communities, the communities they feed, and the environment is nothing short of remarkable, but that growth requires an increased investment in research.