A Short History of Organic Foods in the United States

Moving from Processed to Pure

Organic farming, of course, has been around for millennia: almost all farming done by humans before the advent of pesticides, herbicides, etc. was “organic.”

British scientist Sir Albert Howard often is credited as the “father” of the West’s eventual move to organic farming: he studied traditional farming methods in India for several years in the early 1900s and soon started advocating for a more organic approach to agriculture.

Consumers Start Demanding Organically Grown Food

OrganicJarsMost people weren’t aware of how much environmental and even human damage could be done by eating produce and meat/dairy grown using pesticides and fed hormones, etc. in the first half of the 20th century, but that started to change in the 1970s as the environmental movement started rising in the U.S. in a big way (Earth Day got its start in April 1970, remember).

As people became more aware of the damage humans could inflict on the planet, the interest in more sustainable farming expanded, eventually resulting in consumer demand helping to grow the number of organic farmers.

But regulations and standards defining exactly what constituted bona fide organic food were pretty much nonexistent in the U.S. In addition, because conditions are very different when it comes to growing an apple in California compared to, for example, Vermont, organic certifications pretty much were local, which meant there were no national standards by which consumers could judge whether meat, dairy and produce were truly organic.

National Organic Food Standards

Congress passed the Organic Foods Production Act (OFPA) in 1990, which sets nationwide standards for the production of organic food and fibers. The act requires that the U.S. Department of Agriculture create and enforce regulations. It also called for the formation of the National Organic Standards Board to recommend what could – and could not – be used in the handling and production of organic produce, meat, eggs, and dairy.

OrganicHoneyRecommendations were finalized in 2002.

Organic Certification Requirements

The National Organic Program (NOP) as set by the USDA specifies the substances, practices and methods to be used when growing crops and raising livestock that one wishes to be labeled organic.

In a nutshell, any producer who sells more than $5,000 a year in agricultural products and who wants to label his/her products as “organic” must be certified as such by the USDA. The same goes for any agricultural handling operation wishing to be considered organic: if it does more than $5,000 a year in business, it must be certified by the USDA before it can claim to be an organic handling operation.

Farms and handling operations that do less than $5,000 in sales a year don’t need to be USDA certified in order to call themselves organic producers. They may label their products organic, but they can’t use the USDA Organic Seal.

The Continued Rise of Organic Eating

OrganicPizzaEating organic foods definitely is on the rise in the U.S.: about eight in 10 American families now buy organic food (as of 2014). What’s more while higher-end grocery chains such as Whole Foods were the only supermarkets for decades to sell a lot of organic produce, meats and dairy, other chains – most particularly Walmart – also have started offering customers the chance to purchase organic produce, dairy and meats.

Sales of organic food generated $31.32 billion in sales in 2012 and was the fastest growing sector in the country’s food market. By 2014, organic food sales had generated $35.9 billion, an almost $5 billion increase from just two years before.

Produce accounted for 12 percent of organic food sales in 2014 ($13 billion) and was 36 percent of all organic food sales that year.

This rise isn’t expected to fade anytime soon: the 2014 “United States Organic Food Market Forecast & Opportunities, 2018” report forecasted that the market for organic food in the U.S. should grow at a compound annual growth rate of about 14 percent between 2014-18.