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Organic leap as US and EU form partnership

Over the past decade, organic food sales more than quadrupled from $6.1 billion to nearly $27 billion. As organic exports expect to grow 8 percent annually over the next several years, this growth has also created important opportunities for international trade, supporting jobs here at home.

Travis Forgues is an organic dairy farmer in the town of Alburgh in northwest Vermont, almost at the Canadian border and surrounded on three sides by Lake Champlain. Like many of the other dairy farmers in northern Vermont, Travis is a realist. He went to college. He tried city life. But he was born into farming, and that’s how he wanted to raise his own family. So Travis went to his dad and had a talk about organic farming, and he convinced his father, and then many others, to convert their land from conventional agricultural practices to organic. As Travis saw it, organics was a growing niche within American agriculture, and consumer demand for organically produced dairy was taking off. Better still, consumers were willing to pay more for organic products. Today, as a result of Travis’ work, nearly 130 dairy farmers across New England have signed on to the “New England Pastures” organic dairy cooperative for Organic Valley.

Ten years have passed since the U.S. Department of Agriculture launched its National Organic Program (NOP). You may recognize the “USDA Organic” seal on thousands of fruits, vegetables, meat or other goods you can buy at the local market. The program combines detailed organic standards with a rigorous oversight and enforcement system. It also provides access to the U.S. market for imported organic products that meet our standards.

The integrity of this system has helped propel strong growth in consumer demand for certified organic products. Over the past decade, organic food sales more than quadrupled from $6.1 billion to nearly $27 billion. As organic exports expect to grow 8 percent annually over the next several years, this growth has also created important opportunities for international trade, supporting jobs here at home. While maintaining the rigor of the system and the trust of consumers, we can help drive further exports, economic growth, and support sustainable agricultural production by working to establish common organic standards with foreign nations.

Last week marked an important step forward for the organic food industry.  I was happy to announce that beginning June 1, products certified as organic in the United States or European Union can be sold as organic in the other market, reducing costs and removing burdensome barriers for thousands of U.S. organic farmers wanting to export their goods to Europe. This agreement between the world’s two largest organic producing markets is truly a game changer for America’s blossoming organic industry.

This comes following work in 2009 to establish a similar agreement with Canada. And we are working to establish similar partnerships with Japan, South Korea, and Mexico as well. The growth by the organic industry is just one part of the impressive story of American agriculture.

Agricultural bright spot

Overall, agriculture is a bright spot in our economy, enjoying record exports, record incomes for farming families, and a trade surplus that is nine times greater today than it was just five years ago. Today, agriculture supports 1 in 12 jobs in the United States and provides American consumers with 83 percent of the food we consume. To sustain these successes and to continue to feed our nation and the world, the United States must continue to build a diverse agriculture industry and attract the smartest, hardest-working young people in the nation to careers in agriculture.

The fact that organics is an appealing practice for many young and beginning farmers is not lost on USDA. Currently, 30 percent of principal operators of farms are 65 years old or more. By diversifying our agricultural practices and working with new partners such as the EU to improve markets for our agricultural products, we are also investing our country’s future.

For me, organics and beginning farmers are near and dear to my heart. I drafted the Organic Foods Production Act under the direction of Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont, then Chairman of the Senate Committee on Agriculture. Today, more than 20 years later, the organic industry has blossomed. National surveys have indicated that more than two-thirds of U.S. consumers buy organic products at least occasionally, and 28 percent buy organic products weekly. And, most importantly, organics have given many farmers, young and old, a second chance.

With the EU partnership, as with the Canadian arrangement before it, Travis Forgues sees a more stable future for his family and community. It means higher incomes for organic farmers and ranchers, more opportunities for small businesses, and jobs for people who package, ship, and market organic products. Estimates show the market for U.S. organic sales to the EU could grow more than 300 percent within the first few years. It is another major win for the American economy and President Obama’s jobs strategy. More importantly, it is a win for Travis, his young family, and many others like them.

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