On October 21, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Ann Venneman launched the implementation of the USDA’s new national organic standards for agricultural products. The new standards provide regulations on production, handling, processing, and labeling of organically grown agriculture products—whether it’s grown in the United States or imported from other countries.

Consumers will be able to differentiate organically produced food from conventionally produced food by looking at package labels and watching for signs in the supermarket. A new “USDA Organic” seal on food products indicates the product is at least 95 percent organic. Products with 70 to 95 percent organic ingredients can say so on the label (made with organic fruit for example), but they can’t display the seal. Products with less than 70 percent organic ingredients may list specific, organically produced ingredients on the side of the package but may not make any organic claims on the front of the package. The use of the organic seal is voluntary, so it probably won’t be used on 100 percent of organic products.

The 2002 Farm Act includes several first-time research and technical assistance provisions to assist organic crop and livestock producers with production and marketing. The Act authorizes $15 million in new funding for organic production system research and $15 million for a national cost-share program to help defray the costs of certification incurred by organic producers.

Organic farming became one of the fastest growing segments of U.S. agriculture during the 1990s. It’s been growing 20 to 25 percent annually for the past several years. U.S. retail sales reached $7.8 billion in 2000, and global sales topped 17.5 billion. Some farmers are turning to certified organic farming systems as a potential way to lower input costs, decrease reliance on nonrenewable resources, capture high-value markets and premium prices, and boost farm income.

What is organic food? Production of organic foods virtually excludes the use of synthetic chemicals, petroleum-based fertilizers, sewage sludge-based fertilizers, bio-engineering, and ionizing radiation. Organic meat, poultry, eggs, and dairy products come from animals given no antibiotics or growth hormones.

Fresh fruits and vegetables have been the top selling category of organically grown food since the organic food industry started retailing products more than three decades ago. Produce accounted for 42 percent of U.S. organic food sales in 2000, followed by packaged groceries (15 percent), dairy (11 percent), bulk and frozen foods (8 percent each), soy-based products (6 percent), beverages (5 percent), meat (3 percent), and snacks and candy (2 percent).

One of the most striking differences between conventional and organic food marketing is the use of direct markets, such as farmers’ markets, farm stands, roadside stands, and mail order sales. It’s estimated only 1.6 percent of U.S. fresh produce sales occur directly between producers and consumers. For organic sales, however, direct markets have accounted for 17 to 22 percent of total organic sales. The number of farmers’ markets in the United States has grown steadily from 1,755 markets in 1994 to 2,863 in 2000. Farmers’ markets are scattered across the country but have heavy concentrations in the Northeast, upper Midwest, and along the West Coast.

So how much acreage in the U.S. is certified organic? Farmers in 48 states used organic production systems and third-party organic certification services on nearly 2.3 million acres of farmland in 2001 and were raising certified organic livestock in nearly three quarters of the states. More than half of the farmland was used for growing crops, with California, North Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, and Montana as the top producers. Colorado and Texas had the most organic pasture and rangeland.

It should be noted the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) makes no claims that organically produced food is safer or more nutritious than conventionally produced food. Organic food differs from conventionally produced food in the way it’s grown, handled, and processed.

Ultimately the consumer will dictate how much of our food is grown organically. If you want organic food, farmers will supply it. IBI