Last year, demand for organic products in the U.S. grew by 11.3 percent, reaching $35.9 billion, but American farmers are still stuck in the 1990s, growing the same old genetically modified (GMO) foods bathed in synthetic chemicals that we don’t want to eat. To meet consumer demand, we now import more organic food and animal feed than ever before.
Some foods are impossible for our nation’s farmers to supply in quantity—coffee, bananas, certain oils—but we could definitely be growing more organics. For example, we have mastered the production of soybeans. The U.S. is the world’s leading soybean grower, but domestic production of organic soybeans has been stagnant since the early 2000’s. In fact, soybeans are the second largest U.S. organic import, worth $184 million last year alone. Imports from India, our top supplier of organic soybeans followed by China, more than doubled between 2013 and 2014.
How about corn? We’re great at corn—think “Cornhuskers.” The U.S. grows more corn than any other country, by far. But when it comes to organic corn, if you think we’re growing that, think again. Most of it comes from Romania—we imported $11.6 million of their organic corn last year, up from $545,000 in 2013. In fact, organic corn is the tenth biggest organic import as domestic production has barely changed in the last decade.
Because 90 percent of U.S. soybeans and corn come from GMO seeds, those crops are not eligible for organic labeling. While Monsanto might like to get that changed, American consumers can’t let that happen. We also can’t let H.R. 1599 (dubbed the “Monsanto Protection Act” or DARK Act) pass, a bill that would take away state and local authority to regulate the growing of GMO crops and would weaken federal oversight of GMO foods.
While the long-term health impacts of consuming GMO foods are controversial, glyphosate (aka “Roundup”), a powerful synthetic chemical used on GMO seeds, has been linked to cancer and other pesticide-related illnesses, damages beneficial insect populations, and has put Monarch butterflies at the brink of extinction. Plus, GMO seeds create herbicide resistant “superweeds” and pesticide resistant “superbugs.” All this, and claims that GMO seeds would require fewer chemicals have been proven untrue—researchers at Washington State University estimated that between 1996 and 2011, the use of pesticides and herbicides actually increased by more than 400 million pounds due to GMOs. Yuck, who wants to eat that?
While I am thrilled to see an increase in demand for organic foods, I am saddened by the fact that American farmers are losing out on valuable opportunities to meet that demand, and the demand of large-scale national restaurants like Chipotle. They were the first national restaurant company to disclose all GMO ingredients in their food, and earlier this year Chipotle launched their G-M-Over It marketing campaign, vowing to cook only with non-GMO ingredients.
Competition is growing fast. Amy’s Kitchen just announced they’ll open a drive-thru restaurant that serves 100 percent non-GMO (95 percent organic) vegetarian and vegan options, many of which are made from locally sourced ingredients. Icing on the cake: Even their tableware will be made from recyclable, non-GMO materials and their takeout bags and boxes printed with non-GMO ink. Other restaurants and food producers will likely follow suit as consumers become more aware of the harmful effects of GMO foods, and as businesses recognize the missed financial benefits of serving what we want—clean food.
Consumers all over the world are asking for more organic food, so why aren’t American farmers delivering? To find out, I decided to ask my favorite Nebraskan farmer, Art Tanderup, to share his challenges to growing organic. On his small family farm in Nebraska, the third largest corn-producing state in the U.S., he grows both corn and soybeans.
As a “steward of the land,” Art has “wrestled with the desire to raise organic corn and soybeans.” He already works hard to maintain and improve soil structure and health, recently shifting to a no-till operation, for example, “by planting directly into the stubble of the previous year’s crops, using cover crops to keep the soil alive in the off season, and using a roller-crimper instead of chemicals to kill the cover crop.” Art knows the value of healthy microorganisms, earthworms and organic matter, but struggles to make the transition to his ultimate goal, of “organic, no-till farming.”
According to Art, “controlling weeds is the most significant challenge to raising organic crops.” Last year he experimented with about 80 acres of non-GMO organic soybeans. “We experienced a significant weed issue, so we had to call in a crew to help.” I happened to be part of that crew, on the farm for a project related to the fight against the KeystoneXL Pipeline. I don’t know if they technically counted as superweeds, but the weeds on Art’s land were definitely super—super terrible, that is. His financial loss to weeds last year was 19 bushels per acre.
Weeds can be managed, but marketing the organic product is a more difficult challenge. “There are few local markets for organic corn and beans in our area, so trucking an additional 100-150 miles is necessary.” Through some of his connections and a bit of luck, Art was able to find a buyer for his non-GMO soybeans, but he had to store them for several months. “Thankfully, I was able to put my soybeans in my farm grain bin to be hauled at the appropriate time. I earned a $2.00 a bushel more for my non-GMO beans, but if I would have trucked them further across the state, I could have realized $3.00 or more per bushel,” Art explained. Like me, Art is hopeful that “as more farmers switch to organic, we will see an increase in local buyers and distributors.”
It will be a while before the U.S. establishes a supply chain of organic food and animal feed, after all, organic certification and retooling farmers and ranchers with the knowledge they need to ensure their organic plants and animals thrive takes time. But if I know anything about American farmers, it’s that they are hard working and will do whatever it takes to feed our nation. So let this be a call to action to the farming communities across the country, from sea to shining sea. I am proud to be American-Made and I want to remain American-Fed, organic style.