Someone, somewhere, is likely preparing a harvest of fall apples using organic methods. And for good reason: Demand. Since the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Organic Program launched in October 2002, organic continues to claim a spot as the one of the fastest-growing food categories in the food industry.
“Conventional food stores have grown at more or less the rate of food inflation over the last 15 years or so; organic has had 8% compound average growth over the past 30 years,” said Jay Jacobowitz, president of Retail Insights, a consulting firm. “If you expand the trend lines, this is remarkable progress.”
The numbers tell a true success story. In 2003, U.S. organic spending totaled $10.4 billion. By 2010, sales had nearly tripled, and last year the industry grew by 9.5%, hitting $31.5 billion, according to the Organic Trade Association. Organic food and beverages made up the majority of spend, valued at $29 billion.
It wasn’t always this way. Before there were national standards, retailers selling organics were largely responsible for their own research. Certain organizations and individual states had developed guidelines, but it was still a very fragmented movement. Phillip Nabors, owner of the Mustard Seed Market & Café, with two locations in Montrose and Solon, Ohio, recalls working directly with each individual supplier to vet their organic offerings. It was a time-consuming process.
“We’d interview farmers and had to be satisfied that they composted, managed their soil and didn’t use any pesticides, herbicides, fungicides,” he said.
The patchwork of regulations began to fray as organic food recaptured a place at the dinner table. The idea of a national standard gained speed, culminating in the NOP, implemented on Oct. 21, 2002.
“Standardization and definition have been extremely helpful in providing confidence in shoppers,” said Jacobowitz.
Not everyone was happy. The core organic community complained that a national program would bring about dilution of standards, he added.
“Once you ask government to define industry standards, it becomes a political process and all interested parties, including the competition, have a seat at the table,” said Jacobowitz of organic purists’ concerns.
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As a retailer, Nabors advocated slightly stricter guidelines, but overall he’s proud of the program’s accomplishments.
“We’ve changed how people farm and think about the relationship between diet and health,” he said. “There are fewer pesticides in human bodies and the environment because of organic foods.”
Now, on any given day, 95% of Mustard Seed’s produce is organic, with meats and groceries a mix of both natural and organic. Increasingly, Mustard Seed is also selling non-GMO foods. Nabors estimates more than 50% of his total profits come from organic sales.