Organic industry shows growth

by World Grain Staff
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The United States (U.S.) has long been a provider of food aid to Third World and developing countries. Investing in genetic technologies has been a strong component of its strategy to promote global food security.

In addition, the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy says the European Commission’s (EC) campaign to legalize the planting of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) is part of a broader strategy "premised on the belief that E.U. member states otherwise cannot grow sufficient feed grains for the E.U. meat and dairy industry."

Member states, however, are not following along easily with this campaign.

Acting in contrast to the European Food Safety Association, the German Department of Agriculture has banned plantings of Monsanto’s MON810 strain of genetically modified corn, just when it started to seem that staunch opposition to genetically modified crops was softening. Conversely, the entrance of more companies into the organic sector is encouraging more certified land in production. Monsanto said that Germany has offered no new evidence that GMO cultivation is damaging or unsafe.

"This is the result of conflict in an area where science and politics collide," said Brad Mitchell of Monsanto’s public affairs department. "From our perspective, the German ban is inappropriate and it is ignoring the needs of farmers all over the world."

The E.U. Commission, the bloc’s executive arm, has tried without success to get the bans in other countries lifted. The ban put Germany alongside France, Austria, Hungary, Greece and Luxembourg, which also banned MON 810 maize despite its approval by the E.U. as safe for commercial use in the bloc.

German farmers have registered intentions to cultivate some 3,300 hectares of GM maize for the 2009 harvest, up from 3,100 hectares in 2008. "There are certain parties in a segment of politics who are simply against the proliferation of ag technologies," Mitchell said. "Their actions fly in the face of E.U. rules, science and, frankly, experience."

In other news on the GMO front, a presidential decree issued in March ended the 10-year Mexican moratorium against the planting of genetically modified maize. The Organic Trade Association (OTA) called for a global moratorium on genetically modified organisms in agricultural applications as early as 2000. There certainly is not a consensus, however, that GMO cultivation is safe and environmentally sound.

"Genetically modified resistance to insects and pesticides is not just something that is applied and goes away," says Barbara Haumann of OTA. "It’s in the stems, it’s in the roots and it’s causing soil damage."

ECOLOGICAL CONCERNS

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service (ARS) has done studies on the impact of glyphosate (Roundup) on soybeans and other commodity crops. Although GM soybeans and glyphosate pose little or no human health concerns, their impacts on soil biology and productivity and on the growth and health of the soybean plant itself have received little attention. One problem is with the alteration of plant exudates, which are liquids that naturally help plants heal and provide defenses against insect attacks. Exudates also exhibit offensive characteristics which repel other incompatible or competitive plants.

The ARS reports that some of the glyphosate applied to GM soybeans was released through the roots during a 16-day period after glyphosate was applied to the plants. "Varieties of several crops, including glyphosate-resistant (GR) or Roundup Ready soybean, are genetically modified to resist the herbicidal effects of glyphosate and provide farmers with an effective weed management tool," the ARS states.

The important biological processes in the root zone, including the characteristics of substances released through the soybean root and their subsequent effects on adjacent soil microorganisms, have not been studied thoroughly, the ARS reported. "The GM soybean released high amounts of carbohydrates and amino acids even when glyphosate was not applied compared to the non-GM soybean, which suggested an inadvertent change in the plant physiology may have occurred during genetic modification of the soybean for herbicide resistance," ARS said in a 2005 study, adding that GM traits alter the microbial characteristics of the soybean root system in a negative way.

"We believe that genetically modified crops are promoting radical changes in global agro-ecosystems, including soil," Haumann said. "We don’t really have a stance on the nutritional safety of GMO foods, but safety is a factor when you consider the ecological implications for all of us."

According to a 2008 report released by Friends of the Earth and the Center for Food Safety, genetically engineered crops have resulted in a large increase in pesticide use which "contributes to soil and water contamination."

USDA numbers show a 15-fold increase in the use of glyphosate on soybeans, corn and cotton in the U.S. from 1994 to 2005, with the adoption of Roundup Ready versions of these crops.

GROWTH AND DEVELOPMENT

The growth and development of the organic industry, more than any other evidence, shows consumer dissatisfaction in some parts of the world with conventional agricultural production methods. The OTA said there is an emerging atmosphere that indicates consumers are more aware of, and careful about, the foods they choose and the ingredients from which they are made. Evidence of this trend is that more companies who also use genetically modified ingredients in other applications are expanding into the organic realm.

The OTA, however, welcomes these companies into the business. "This isn’t a new phenomenon," Haumann said. "More and more companies are entering organics as consumer demand grows, and OTA welcomes them because that means more of a market for organic farmers."

Consolidation and new entrants are more or less normal phenomena in any emerging industry, and a growing number of companies manufacturing organic food products will encourage the expansion of cultivation on organic lands. Also, companies of all sizes have to nevertheless meet organic standards, even if they have divisions that produce conventional feedstuffs, though industry insiders have said that the entrance of the megacorps who can pay more for ingredients have driven up prices.

Also, companies have found that using the "organic" brand is a powerful marketing tool. Half of organic producers display the "USDA Organic" seal on their products, a proportion that rises to 83% for companies with organic sales of $5 million or more.

"Among companies that don’t currently display the seal, 20 percent have decided to do so in the next three years," the OTA states in its executive summary of a 2008 market survey. "The relatively large firms (organic sales over $5 million) are more likely than smaller firms to say that use of the USDA seal on labels has helped them generate sales of organic products. However, only about half of the larger firms are of this opinion."

The growth of the organic food industry has been relatively solid, but the real gains in 2008 were made in the other sectors of textiles, personal care, pet food and flowers.

"The non-food organic business is growing fastest because the food sector is more mature, "Haumann said. "The biggest growth was in organic supplements and clothing." Organics represented 3.9% of all bread and grain sales in 2008, the OTA reports. Organics reported $22.929 billion in food sales for 2008 and $1.648 billion in non-food revenue.

OTA’s survey indicated that lack of a dependable supply of organic materials continues to be an important issue for the industry, with 41% of producers saying that undependable supplies of organic raw materials limit their ability to generate sales. This is an issue for both large and small producers. Though no single raw material dominates complaints about supplies, undependable stocks of organic grains are mentioned most often. "One of the reasons for this is that the fastest growing sector of the organic business was in bread and grains," Haumann told World Grain.

Nicholas Zeman is a correspondent for Sosland Publishing. Reach him at nicholas.zeman@und.edu.

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