According to a U.S. Department of Agriculture Economic Research Service (USDA ERS) report, the demand for organic animal feed is rising in the country, resulting in a shortage and increased prices. According to the ERS, increasing incentives for organic grain production in the United States may help decrease reliance on synthetic fertilizers and dependence on imports while improving soil health and providing money for farmers.
According to the Organic Trade Association (OTA), sales of organic meat rose by 2.5 percent in 2021, totaling around US$2 billion. The organic corn and soy that make up the pricey imported organic livestock feed are grown by foreign growers in countries with cheaper labor and land expenses. The significant growth rate of sales of organic meat is being fueled by the competitive advantage of imported organic feed, in line with the OTA. According to OTA.
U.S. organic grain production is expanding, but not quickly enough to keep up with demand from the organic livestock sector. According to the most recent data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Agricultural Statistics Service (USDA NASS), corn, soybeans, wheat, and oats are the main grains produced in the country on 765,000 acres of organic land, compared to about 177 million acres of conventional land.
The growth of organic animal production in the United States has outpaced that of organic grain production. The three-year transition period necessary from conventional to USDA-certified organic, according to OTA, is a contributing factor to this.
According to Lydia English, Field Crops Viability Manager for Practical Farmers of Iowa, “it’s like you’re tearing the band-aid off, and there’s no further financial support.”
Fred Kirschenmann, President Emeritus of the Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture, tells Food Tank that in order to promote the shift away from conventional farming, “we need to see some reforms inside the USDA to revamp the farm programs, especially for the young farmers.” Going organic isn’t the only solution, says Kirschenmann. “One of the outcomes is that we are producing more organic grain, but the fundamental change is in the way we practice agriculture, from input-intensive to regenerative and self-renewing.”
Farmers switching to organic grain face an additional barrier due to market instability. According to Elizabeth Reaves, Senior Program Director of the Sustainable Food Lab, “farmers will enter the market” when the cost of organic grain is more than twice as high as the cost of conventional grain. However, supply is frequently met elsewhere by cheaper imports while they go through the changeover process. The cost of organic grain may skyrocket after a farmer completes their transformation, making them lose their investment.
Reaves also observes a dearth of markets for crops grown in rotation to cover the soil and supply nutrients for the growth of organic crops. “The demand for corn, soy, and wheat under the organic system is similar to that of the conventional system, leaving farmers without markets for crucial rotation crops like cereal grains, legumes, and seeds for oils.
Farmers can enhance their soil health while earning money if there is an increase in the demand for cover crops and the incentives for cultivating them. The Small Grains in the Maize Belt Initiative, a collaboration between Practical Farmers of Iowa and Sustainable Food Lab, works with feed markets and farmers to regenerate soil and reduce synthetic nitrogen use on corn by incorporating nitrogen-fixing crops into crop rotations.
Farmers can increase their income, improve the condition of their soil, and use less synthetic nitrogen on their corn crops by introducing oats and a cover crop of legumes into a rotation with maize and soy. Farmers are encouraged to switch away from traditional crops by using less synthetic fertilizer and organic methods.
While providing feed and fodder for livestock, perennial grains can also provide farmers with stability. According to Tessa Peters, Director of Crop Stewardship at The Land Institute, Kernza, intermediate wheatgrass created by The Land Institute, has a “dual function” of earning farmer income and providing livestock feed.
According to Peters, growing corn “is a really excellent method to lessen the risk of adopting new crops.” Peters points out that Kernza is farmed without pesticides or herbicides despite the fact that it is not certified organic. Organic matter can accumulate because it produces “300 to 1000 pounds of carbon per acre and that carbon tends to be quite stable in the soil profile.”
Jack Algiere, Director of Agroecology at the Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture, tells Food Tank that diversifying our agricultural systems has great benefits. Increases in “fertility and soil stability” can be achieved by implementing cover crops, multi-family rotation systems, perennial lay periods, and livestock rotation.
As Kirschenmann tells Food Tank, “If you look at it from a bigger perspective, the input-intensive system cannot survive much longer since all of those inputs are not renewable.” According to Algiere, the United States production of organic grains must be part of “a paradigm shift” that puts “the sustainability of our planet and our lives on it” first. However, Algiere tells Food Tank that the future food system is about finding a place to contribute.
Consumers must take action in addition to lawmakers and the food industry in order to increase incentives for organic grain production in the United States. “The truth is that in our current food system, it’s simple to find scapegoats and lay the responsibility elsewhere, or to feel like it’s insurmountable or that we’re powerless as consumers,
We don’t have much time, in Kirschenmann’s words, “to think about the transformation that we’re a part of and will be a part of, especially the next generation.” Looking ahead, Kirschenmann states, “I find it to be a very interesting process to listen to and engage in the thinking of the next generation of farmers.”
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Liz Joseph provided the image for Unsplash.