Organic: Still a trend-setter in food and agriculture

As shifts in food and ag proliferate, organic stays relevant and sets the bar

Last holiday season, we hosted over a two-week period our Keto-eating millennial relative (LOTS of meat), our vegan/plant-based friend (NO meat), along with other various flexitarian (SOMETIMES meat, depending on the day), grass-fed-milk-drinking (self-explanatory), Weight Watchers-following (Purple plan -- count the points!) and I’ll-eat-anything family members and acquaintances. The one common thread in all the menu preparations? As much organic food and organic ingredients as possible. 

Today’s increasingly sophisticated and knowledgeable consumers are demanding ones. They want their food to be clean, transparent, fresh and sustainable. They’re looking for high-quality food that has been grown and raised in environmentally friendly and animal humane ways. Those traits are all identified with organic, and organic sales have reached unprecedented levels around the world. In the U.S., the organic market in 2018 broke through the $50 billion market for the first time, hitting a record $52.5 billion, according to the Organic Trade Association’s 2019 Organic Industry Survey.

The desire for more options in what we feed ourselves and our families, the deepening drive to protect the environment and the wish to follow a diet in line with our values and ethics have encouraged shifts in how our food is grown and processed. It has also resulted in new food claims in every aisle of the supermarket. Plant-based foods are taking meat off our plates. Grass-fed milk and dairy products are sought after. Farmers are taking a renewed interest in the cultivation of environmentally beneficial hemp, as products with hemp-extracted CBD have shot up in popularity. Urban farms are being cultivated throughout the country in diverse settings ranging from vacant city lots to warehouse rooftops.  

Organic laid the groundwork and is now setting the foundation for many of the new trends. In addition, the proven integrity of organic and the hard-earned trust of the USDA Organic seal complement and enhance the appeal of today’s emerging claims. 

“This is an exciting time for organic. The organic sector is always evolving, and finding ways to innovate and stay close to the consumer,” says Laura Batcha, CEO and Executive Director of the Organic Trade Association. “The Organic seal is probably more relevant than ever today. We all want to eat healthier, and whether it’s plant-based, grass-fed, vegan, or any other claim, the Organic seal is our ultimate guarantee for clean, high-quality food.”

Market analysts say the importance of the Organic seal on new food products will likely increase as consumers want to ensure that these new claims are also building upon the organic standards.

“As these categories mature, consumers may begin to demand more from these products, which could cause an even greater need for organic certification,” says Julie Pappas, Registered Dietician and Corporate Communications Manager for wellness-focused data provider SPINS. “And in that case, an Organic seal will help consumers easily select items that adhere to their clean label practices.

Forward-looking organic farmers and businesses have been at the forefront of many of today’s eating and ag trends, becoming major players in these new markets. They are setting the quality bar and delivering to consumers, whether it’s plant-based meat, grass-fed milk, organic hemp products, or urban farms producing healthy food for communities. 

Plant-based food fueled by organic pea protein

Tyler Lorenzen has had a passion for clean eating since he was a boy and his dad pointed out to him one day that the soda he was drinking could slow him down. Loving sports and wanting to be fast, Lorenzen took the message to heart, maintaining a healthy largely plant-based diet that helped propel him to the NFL and a stint with the New Orleans Saints as a tight end. 

But professional football careers don’t last long, and his family’s Iowa farm and his dad’s long commitment to a plant-based food system drew Lorenzen back home. Realizing the potential and the good taste of protein from peas, Lorenzen helped take the family business to a new level. He is now the president of PURIS, the nation’s biggest supplier of Textured Pea Protein. PURIS sells organic pea seed to farmers and buys their harvests back to make into organic pea protein products that have become the staple for plant-based foods.

Lorenzen sees a bright future for organic plant-based foods, and the opportunities they’re providing to American farmers.

“Organic farming is the driver for PURIS to create Pea Seeds that are adapted to alternative climates and grown as a double crop,” says Lorenzen. “We see farmers growing peas in early spring or fall increasing their total organic land production. How can we maximize the value of each organic acre for our farmers? That is what the plant-based food movement is doing for the organic industry by providing demand for Organic Peas and ultimately certified organic ingredients like organic pea protein, organic pea starch and organic pea fibers all manufactured in the USA.”

Human diets based on plants aren’t new, but today’s popularity of plant-based meat substitutes and other plant-based products is something different. 

Once regarded as niche lifestyle choices, meat-substitute products weren’t widely available, and truth be told, often weren’t that appetizing. “Meatless meat” products and vegetarian entrees were first marketed in the U.S. in the late 1930s. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, the development of spun soy protein fibers in meat substitutes led to the first soy-based meatless meats. For the huge majority of consumers, the soy-based “fake meats” didn’t come close to the real thing. Now, modern food technology has changed all that.

“Through the technology like PURIS and others are bringing to the market, the plant-based food tastes good which allows people who are looking for those things adopt a plant-based diet easier,” says Lorenzen.

Market watchers don’t see the appetite for plant-based food slowing down anytime soon. Investment firm UBS estimates sales of plant-based protein and meat alternatives will jump from $4.6 billion in 2018 to $85 billion in 2030. Recent studies show some 52 percent of consumers are eating more plant-based foods in their search for healthier, more sustainable diets. Plant-based meat – and poultry – products are jumping off the shelves of supermarkets, and are top sellers in restaurants and fast-food establishments, with many of those products containing PURIS’s Texture Pea Protein. 

Organic will be the cornerstone for plant-based, says Lorenzen: “Organic plant-based foods will continue to be a large part of PURIS’s plan. The future of plant-based and plant-based proteins starts with the soil and organic farming.”

Grass-fed and organic--a winning combination for organic dairy 

Discriminating consumers have long been drawn to grass-fed meat. Most meat-eaters and steak-lovers agree that grass-fed beef tastes better than grain-fed. Nutritionists have also documented its health benefits. Grass-fed beef has less total fat, more heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids, more conjugated linoleic acid (a type of fat that’s thought to reduce heart disease and cancer risks), and more antioxidant vitamins such as vitamin E.

The same benefits apply to grass-fed milk and dairy: grass-fed milk tends to be higher in good fats and omega-3. Combine grass-fed with organic, and you have a supremely clean and nutritious product.  

Cows that produce organic milk are required to have real, not just token, outdoor access. The National Organic Program’s “Access to Pasture” rule stipulates that organic dairy cows must spend at least 120 days each year outside; fresh, foraged grass must be at least 30 percent of their diets. 

Studies have proven the benefits of organic milk over conventional milk: not only more beneficial fats and omega-3’s because of the greater amounts of grass in the organic diets but no residues of toxic pesticides and risky antibiotics, and no artificial growth hormones. That said, Americans are drinking less milk and consuming less dairy. Innovation in the organic dairy sector has never been more important.

Innovation has come in the form of grass-fed organic dairy products, and consumers have been eager buyers. The grass-fed dairy market has risen from just under $20 million in 2015 to over $80 million in 2018. Unfortunately, the claims around grass-fed have been largely undefined until recently, and some grass-fed claims didn’t necessarily mean anything.

To protect the authentic grass-fed claim, the organic dairy co-op Organic Valley and the grass-fed organic dairy Maple Hill introduced a voluntary Certified Grass-Fed Organic Dairy label claim in early 2019. The new standard is administered by Organic Plus Trust.

Dairy farms enrolling in the program must first be certified organic. To earn the extra certification, farms must feed their cows a grass and forage diet, with zero-grain, and provide plenty of pasture for grazing. The certification also requires a full supply chain verification, creating a much higher level of transparency. 

“We were very intentional to require that an operation must first be certified organic to participate,” says Adam Warthesen, Director of Government and Industry Affairs for Organic Valley. “To us that made total sense, organic at the core.”

“We are really advancing an enhanced claim that wraps around the organic standards for dairy and the organic certification process,” explains Warthesen. “An exclusive grass-fed diet is not a requirement of USDA Organic, so this build-out validates the reality of top-notch grass-fed organic dairy.”

The venture appears to be working. So far, over 370 organic dairy farms, 16 organic dairy processors, and three major organic brands have enrolled in the program. Fifty-some Certified Grass-Fed Organic Dairy products can already be found on your grocery shelves. 

“We see a bright future for Certified Grass-Fed Organic Dairy and more dairy products and companies embracing it,” says Warthesen. “We think this is a good example of doing new claims the right way. You build off the best standard out there – USDA Organic. This allows the building of claims that compliment organic, and are honest with consumers and retailers.”

Organic hemp revival underway, sparked by CBD and the Farm Bill 

The Puritans brought hemp seeds to the New World to cultivate. Great Britain made it a law for colonial farmers to plant hemp. A draft of the Declaration of Independence was written on hemp paper. Hemp was at one time one of the most widely planted crops in America, and used for everything from sails of ships and the covers of pioneer wagons to ropes and shoes. Fast forward to the 20th century when misplaced fears that industrial hemp was the same as marijuana ultimately resulted in hemp cultivation in the U.S. being outlawed in the 1970s by the Controlled Substances Act.

By 2009, however, Oregon began approving licenses to grow industrial hemp, and the process to legalize hemp cultivation gained unstoppable momentum. The 2014 Farm Bill created a Hemp Farming Pilot Program, and by the end of 2017, at least 34 states had industrial hemp programs. Finally, in December 2018, the production of industrial hemp was made federally legal again in the U.S. when the Hemp Farming Act of 2018, part of the 2018 Farm Bill, changed hemp from a controlled substance to an agricultural commodity. 

The legalizing of industrial hemp came as demand for hemp-extracted CBD was taking off. CBD is a non-psychoactive cannabinoid thought to have a variety of medical benefits – easing anxiety and depression, promoting sleep, alleviating arthritic pain, reducing epileptic seizures and more. Some estimates are that CBD sales will increase from just over $600 million in 2018 to $23.7 billion in the U.S. by 2023.

Hemp acreage in the U.S. is on the rise, jumping to almost 130,000 acres last year, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, from under 30,000 the previous year. Vote Hemp, an organization that promotes hemp in the marketplace, puts licensed hemp acreage in the U.S. at over 500,000 acres. The organization estimates 70 percent of that acreage will be planted. 

Organic hemp acreage is still small with just 400 organic hemp farms across the country, but interest in organic hemp by farmers who want to produce a premium product is growing, along with demand by consumers who are seeking high-quality hemp-derived products. 

“We believe organic hemp products will be widely available to consumers in the coming years,” says Mark Samuels, co-founder of Primordia LLC, a vertically integrated company in the Imperial Valley of California that grows and processes organic hemp and makes organic hemp extracts. “Similar to produce, consumers like to know the products they’re ingesting are free from harmful pesticides, and organic is one way to verify that. Consumers should expect top tier brands to have certified organic options for most, if not all, the CBD products they offer.”

Primordia announced its official launch last August into the industrial hemp and CBD market with over 10,000 acres of legacy farmland and infrastructure ideal for hemp cultivation in the Imperial Valley. The company benefits from a 365-day cultivation window and has developed proprietary hemp strains tailored for the region alongside state-of-the-art processing and extraction facilities. Using the fourth-generation sprawling farm as its base, Primordia has established a year-round weekly harvest schedule to provide its clients and partners with a continuous supply of organic hemp extracts. 

“The future of hemp is being written today,” says Samuels. “We will see a huge expansion of new types of hemp-infused products across all major industries from food, topical, beverage and Pharma. If organic products are released with high-quality ingredients, packaging and marketing efforts, there is a significant opportunity to drive growth for brands looking to increase their margins, and provide the best quality products to their customers.”

Urban farms and organic working in harmony

During World War II, millions of Americans planted “victory gardens” in their backyards. These gardens eventually supplied the nation with 40 percent of its homegrown fruits and vegetables. After the war, other priorities took over and urban farms died away, replaced by increasingly large-scale agriculture. Most Americans drifted further and further away from the source of their food, and an understanding of the agricultural system on which they depended.

Now urban farming is staging a comeback. Cities throughout the country from New York City to Los Angeles, and Detroit to New Orleans have some sort of official food policy promoting urban agriculture. Three major American cities – Atlanta, Philadelphia and most recently, Washington, D.C. – have a municipal staffer with the title of “Director of Urban Agriculture.” Estimates are that urban farming has grown by more than 30 percent in the U.S. in the last three decades.

Urban farming can’t feed the world, but it can provide multiple benefits for urban areas and city dwellers. Urban farms and gardens can revitalize neighborhoods, foster the feeling of community and even lead to lower crime. Urban farms can encourage healthier diets and give city dwellers an up-close look at how our food system works. They can serve as sites for education, youth development, and workforce training opportunities.

The majority of urban farms, while perhaps not certified organic, use organic and sustainable practices. These farms can provide environmental benefits: they filter out local air pollution, they retain precipitation and control storm water runoff, and they provide habitats for wild bees, other pollinators and create an urban center of biodiversity.

Michael Wall, Director of Farmer Services for Georgia Organics, works with many urban farmers throughout the state, and says organic agriculture and urban farming are intricately combined.

“Here in Georgia, urban ag and organic ag have had a harmonious relationship for a long time,” says Wall. “It’s not so much that one fits into the other, but that they complement and support each other in important ways. Now, after a decade or two, it’s hard to separate urban from organic from urban, in many minds around here. And that’s a good thing.”

Wall sees many benefits emanating from urban organic farms. He says that not only do these three-plus acre gardens employ at least a half dozen folks year-round, but they are serving as “important cross-cultural centers where city folk can visit an operational organic farm and learn how food is produced, learn what cover crops are, and see how much hard work it takes.”

Brooklyn Grange Farms in New York has taken urban farming to new heights. Its three rooftop farms span 5.6 acres, making it the largest rooftop farm in the country. It’s on pace to produce around 100,000 pounds of produce this year. While not certified organic, the farm follows organic practices: it uses no synthetic chemicals, it plants cover crops, practices crop rotation, applies green manure, uses beneficial insects for pest management, plants organic seeds when available and employs a host of other sustainable practices. 

“Urban farms will never replace critical rural food systems that feed our cities and the world. Nor should they – we need to support these systems,” says Anastasia Cole Plakias, Co-founder and Chief Operating Officer of Brooklyn Grange Farms. “But bringing agriculture to cities presents opportunities not only to increase green space where it is often most needed, but to connect urbanites with that green space and educate them about food, farming, and the daily consumption choices they make that impact the environment.”

The organic guarantee

So how important will the Organic label be as these trends gain even more prominence? Will Organic lose its relevance? Just the opposite, say the experts.

“Buyers of these products and adopters of these trends are not only looking for what’s new and on trend, but products that provide the level of ‘purity’ to which they have become accustomed,” says Maryellen Molyneaux, President and Managing Partner of NMI, Natural Marketing Institute. “They will continue to demand that the products they use are a step-above mainstream, and specifically organic wherever possible.”

“Organic guarantees them that the product is not adulterated in any way,” says Molyneaux. “We are already seeing new products in the marketplace that not only present plant-based, grass-fed, urban ag or hemp/CBD among other hot trends, but organic versions of these new exciting options that will stand out above the high number of introductions as differentiated brands that provide the best in healthy options.”

Organic setting the bar. Now and in the future. //

Maggie McNeil is Director of Media Relations for the Organic Trade Association (