Growing Organic, State by State: A Berkeley Food Institute Report and its Importance to Climate Change

This guest blog is written by Nina F. Ichikawa, Policy Director at the Berkeley Food Institute (BFI). BFI strives to transform food systems to expand access to healthy, affordable food and promote sustainable and equitable food production. As part of their mission, BFI empowers new leaders with capacities to cultivate diverse, just, resilient, and healthy food systems.

There has long been an overlap between the practices prescribed by the National Organic Program (NOP) for organic growers, and those found to sequester carbon and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.  Internationally, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations states that “the FAO promotes organic agriculture as an alternative approach that maximizes the performance of renewable resources and optimizes nutrient and energy flows in agroecosystems.”

Here in the US, the NOP states that, among the other requirements for producers, they must implement production practices that “maintain or improve the natural resources of the operation, including soil and water quality” (NOP§205.200).  Organic production is further defined in federal guidance as a “production system that… fosters cycling of resources, promotes ecological balance, and conserves biodiversity.” More detailed examples are provided that have been proven in repeated research studies to also perform carbon sequestration functions.

Last year, BFI commissioned research on the interactions between state departments of agriculture and existing and prospective organic farmers in 21 states. We wanted to figure out whether prospective and existing farmers were being served at the state level.[1] We felt that while the NOP is administered federally, state departments of agriculture play an important intermediary role. “Growing Organic, State by State: A Review of State-Level Support for Organic Agriculture” was the result. Both the full report and executive summary are available here.

Many states act as certifiers themselves, and our research found that the patchwork of systems (where some farmers are working with a state government certifier, and others are working with a private-sector certifier) can be confusing to all involved.

States also are responsible for their public university systems (including Cooperative Extension), which can play a pivotal role in supporting or not supporting the growth of the organic sector. Finally, states play a marketing and promotion role; considering the explosive growth of the organic sector, it matters whether or not organic production is included in those marketing efforts.

Berkeley PhD candidate Laura Driscoll led research for this project, and she’ll be presenting on the report as part of Organic Week DC, May 21-24, 2018. We welcome comments from anyone interested in state policy and the future of agriculture.

[1] Note: Organic processors and manufacturers are a big part of the organic landscape, but BFI did not focus on them for this survey due to limited funding for the project.
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