Organic Agriculture Program

The organic industry is the fastest growing segment of U.S. agriculture, with U.S. total sales of food and non-food products reaching $47 billion in 2016. According to a recent survey by the National Agricultural Statistics Service, U.S. farmers and ranchers alone sold $7.6 billion in certified organic commodities in 2016. During the same time, there were 14,217 certified organic farms. To sustain this growth, NIFA established programs designed to address critical challenges of the organic industry. These programs cover the entire value-chain of organic products and include both food and non-food products.

General Information

NIFA supports programs to address critical organic agriculture issues, priorities, or problems through the integration of research, education and extension activities and programs to evaluate both the environmental impacts of organic agriculture and the environmental services provided.

The Organic Foods Production Act (OFPA) established the National Organic Program (NOP) in 1990. Final rules for implementing this legislation came out in 2000 and nationwide organic standards for certification under a national organic label were first established in 2002.

The organic industry is now the fastest growing segment of U.S. agriculture. Despite a steady growth in annual demand for organic products, the organic sector continues to face many challenges because organic agriculture is more than just a change in production practices. Production challenges could be grouped into two major categories:

  • barriers to transition for those interested in entering this dynamic industry and production constraints for those who are already certified. Barriers to transition include but are not limited to the lack of effective tools to manage diseases, pests, weeds, and nutrients; the development of new markets; and
  • availability of certified organic feedstuffs. Certified organic farmers have identified soil health, nutrients, diseases, pests and weeds management as their top challenges. Also, publicly available seeds and breeds are critical to the development of the industry. Organic animal production has faced even more daunting challenges. This is largely due to the barriers to transition, including the availability of certified organic feedstuffs, certified land for grazing and identity-preserved supply chains from slaughter to the consumer.

More research, education, and extension is critically needed to help develop innovative management strategies for certified organic growers, and to inform transition choices. This will also speed the development of alternative strategies following the loss of critical tools like the use of antibiotics for disease management in organic systems.

Currently, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) is the major extramural funding agency for organic agriculture research, education, and extension in the country. Many of NIFA’s competitive programs accept applications in organic agriculture. However, two of the programs are specific to organic agriculture. These are: Organic Agriculture Research and Extension Initiative (OREI) and the Organic Transitions (ORG) programs.

Organic Agriculture Research and Extension Initiative (OREI)

OREI (~$20M/year) was established by the 1990 Federal Organic Foods Production Act (OFPA), Title 21 of the 1990 Farm Bill, and the first grants were awarded in 2004. The recent 2014 Farm Bill reauthorized OREI until 2018. OREI supports research, education, and extension programs that enhance the ability of producers and processors who have already adopted organic standards to grow and market high quality organic agricultural products. Priority concerns include biological, physical, and social sciences, including economics. The OREI has eight goals that are legislatively-defined by the Farm Bill:

  1. Facilitating the development and improvement of organic agriculture production, breeding, and processing methods
  2. Evaluating the potential economic benefits of organic agricultural production and methods to producers, processors and rural communities
  3. Exploring international trade opportunities for organically grown and processed agricultural commodities
  4. Determining desirable traits for organic commodities
  5. Identifying marketing and policy constraints on the expansion of organic agriculture
  6. Conducting advanced on-farm research and development that emphasizes observation of, experimentation with, and innovation for working organic farms, including research relating to production, marketing, food safety, socioeconomic conditions, and farm business management
  7. Examining optimal conservation and environmental outcomes relating to organically produced agricultural products
  8. Developing new and improved seed varieties that are particularly suited for organic agriculture

Organic Transitions (ORG)

ORG (~$4.0 M/year) was established by the 1998 Agricultural Research, Extension, and Education Reform Act (AREERA) and the first grants were awarded in 2001. ORG focuses on issues related to the needs of growers and processors who are adopting organic practices and ecosystem services of organic agriculture. The ORG program supports the development and implementation of biologically-based management practices that mitigate the ecological, agronomic and economic risks associated with the transition from conventional to organic agricultural production systems. The program addresses new and emerging hurdles for producers transitioning to organic production. The program helps develop innovative management strategies to inform transition choices and improve soil health and other ecosystem services of organic agriculture. It also invests in the development of alternative strategies following the loss of critical tools, like the use of antibiotics for disease management in organic systems.
 
ORG and OREI are complementary programs that address different phases and issues of the organic system. OREI focuses on applied research with a major requirement to work with organic producers. Issues like disease, weed and pest population dynamics, as well as soil heath, are very different during the transition phase of the organic system. The Organic Transition program addresses those unique challenges without duplicating OREI. It is important to note that ORG eligibility is limited to colleges and universities while OREI is open to almost any U.S. entity.

Support from OREI and ORG is used to fund high priority research, education, and extension programs to solve critical challenges facing the industry. Other NIFA competitive programs that have provided significant support for organic agriculture include the following:

Funding of all facets of research in organic agriculture is a strategic investment that will limit imports, create jobs, and promote rural prosperity and economic activities domestically. This reinforces our national security.

FUNDED PROJECTS

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