Key players in the North American organic industry will find a full plate of issues to digest when they gather in Washington, DC for the Organic Trade Association's (OTA) Annual Policy Conference on Wednesday, May 21.
Booming consumer demand as organic goes more mainstream, increasingly tight supplies of organic products, and lingering confusion among consumers are just a few of the host of critical issues facing the organic industry to be addressed at OTA's annual summit, whose theme this year is "We're Organic."
"Organic has become one of the top seals recognized by consumers, and by all indications consumers will continue to drive the organic industry forward. By coming together in Washington, DC, organic is taking its seat at the table in the halls of Congress and the Department of Agriculture," said Laura Batcha, executive director and CEO of OTA.
"Organic food and farming is a diverse sector of 18,000 hard-working businesses with 81 percent of organic farm sales going into the wholesale value chain. Even with 3,000 farms in transition to organic production, more are needed to power organic forward. Now is a great time for new farmers to join us," said Melody Meyer, chairperson of OTA Board of Directors and Vice President for Policy & Industry Relations for the organic distributor UNFI.
The organic industry has generated headlines for years. The sector has grown from a niche industry not so long ago to today a significant part of the food and fiber industry, now earning more than $35 billion in annual U.S. sales. Demand for an increasing array of organic products — from fresh produce, snack foods, and meat to organic fiber, personal care products and pet food — appears to be on a solid upswing that is not seen changing course in the near future.
OTA's recently released 2014 Industry Survey, considered to be the most accurate and comprehensive picture of the industry, projected growth rates in the industry over the next two years to at least keep pace with 2013's almost-12 percent clip and even surpass it.
At the same time, challenges for the industry exist: American farmers are not producing enough organic products to keep up with demand, and the public is often confused about what organic really means and the benefits of organic.
OTA's speakers and the over 175 attendees at the conference — representing all facets of the diverse organic industry including small and large organic farms, organic distributors, leading and emerging organic brands, organic retailers of all sizes — will address the myriad of issues stirring in the sector.
Senate Agriculture Committee Chair Debbie Stabenow (D-MI), who spearheaded the passage by her committee earlier this year of a farm bill that contains important priorities for the organic industry, will receive the OTA Public Servant Award on Wednesday for her long support of the organic industry. Whole Foods co-CEO Walter Robb will present the award.
The farm bill, thanks in large part to Sen. Stabenow's leadership, includes provisions that could set in motion a national check-off program for the organic industry, thereby allowing the industry access to the same kind of agricultural research and promotion programs as conventional farmers. It also provides the Agriculture Department's National Organic Program more funds to enforce organic standards, and increases funds for organic research and other organic initiatives.
Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack will speak to the conference on Wednesday and share his views about the future of organic and its role in American agriculture. Vilsack will be joined in attendance at the conference by officials from USDA's Agricultural Marketing Service, Risk Management Service, Foreign Agricultural Service, National Agricultural Statistics Service, National Institute of Food and Agriculture, National Organic Program, and its sister agency the Federal Trade Commission.
OTA's Executive Director and CEO Laura Batcha will discuss OTA's latest industry and consumer surveys, and present OTA's annual state of the industry report. The newly formed Farmers Advisory Council will give a voice to organic farmers, ranchers and growers gathering to tackle supply challenges.
An interesting highlight of the conference will be a presentation by Kesang Tshomo, the National Organic Programme Coordinator for the Kingdom of Bhutan. Bhutan recently made headlines, when it declared its goal to convert to 100 percent organic agriculture, the first nation in the world to go all organic. The tiny Himayalan nation has launched a region-by-region, crop-by-crop approach to help its farmers make the transition to organic in an effort to preserve and protect its environment and to improve the living standards of its population, 80 percent of whom make its living off agriculture.
Follow the conference and join the conversation on Twitter at: @OrganicTrade and #organicweekDC. Highlights of the conference, including the addresses by Vilsack, Stabenow, Batcha, and Tshomo, will be streamed live on the internet at http://www.ota.com/advocacy/events/policy-conference-live-stream.html.
The conference will take place at the Newseum at 555 Pennsylvania Ave, NW, in Washington, and will be held in conjunction with OTA's members-only conference and congressional fly-in. OTA member companies are scheduled to meet with more than 130 congressional offices on Thursday to advocate for policies that support organic food and agriculture.