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Benchmark study yields key insights into global organic food trade

New report from OTA shows significant opportunities for U.S. farmers

Maggie McNeil
(202) 403-8514
(202) 615-7997
Washington , DC
April 15, 2015
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A landmark study on the trade flow of organic food products across the borders of the United States reveals that a robust global appetite for organic food has created new lucrative markets from Mexico City all the way to Hong Kong for U.S. organic producers—but also provides strong evidence that American farmers are losing out on some valuable opportunities by not growing more organic.

According to the study conducted by Pennsylvania State University’s Dr. Edward Jaenicke, associate professor of agricultural economics, released Wednesday by the Organic Trade Association (OTA), exports of U.S. organic foods as well as imports of organic into the U.S. have risen significantly in the past few years. This watershed report compiles, for the first time ever, a comprehensive picture of the officially tracked organic food products sold by U.S. exporters and bought by U.S. importers.

In 2014, American organic growers sold more than $550 million worth of products tracked by the U.S. government through organic export codes to buyers around the world, with the United States rightly claiming the position of global supplier for fresh organic produce.

Imports of organic products outpaced exports, amounting to nearly $1.3 billion in 2014. The import picture tells two stories: one of an increasing appetite by Americans for organic foods not widely produced in this country, like coffee, bananas, mangoes, olive oil, to name a few, and the second story of a growing domestic market for organic feed grains but insufficient home-grown organic crops to meet that demand.

While America’s coffee lovers gulped down more than $300 million worth of foreign-grown organic coffee, helping to boost the import total, imports of organic soybeans and organic corn—the main ingredients in organic feed for the expanding U.S. organic dairy, poultry and livestock sectors—showed sharp gains.

“This important study is a ‘Help Wanted’ message for American farmers,” said Laura Batcha, OTA’s CEO and Executive Director. “This report is the first of its kind, and it yields some key findings to help guide the organic and non-organic farm community, public policymakers, and all organic stakeholders in making future industry investment decisions. It shows substantial missed opportunities for the U.S. farmer by not growing organic—whether to meet the demand outside the U.S. or to keep up with the robust domestic demand for organic.”

Powered by the latest data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Office of the U.S Trade Representative, the OTA-commissioned study analyzes trends in international trade for those organic products the U.S. government currently tracks: organic products that have been assigned a harmonized tariff schedule code. The products analyzed represent the major organic foods bought and sold abroad.

A global appetite for U.S. organic

Apples, lettuce, grapes, spinach and strawberries are the top five organic products exported by the United States. Exports of organic apples alone jumped 40 percent in 2014 from the previous year, compared to a small three percent growth rate for non-organic apple exports. In fact, the pace of growth for the exports of almost all of the 26 organic products tracked was markedly higher than that of their non-organic counterparts.

Exports of organic produce account for an increasingly greater proportion of total exports. Of all the cherry tomatoes exported by the U.S., for example, 42 percent are organic; 33 percent of the spinach exports are organic, along with 27 percent of the onions, and 23 percent of the carrots.

“We found that many of the American-grown organic products are really out-performing in the export market,” said Monique Marez, OTA’s Associate Director for International Trade. “This shows a thirst for organic products—and specifically for U.S. organic products—that is resonating around the world.”

Organic imports filling in the gaps

On the import side, the top five organic imported products are coffee, soybeans, olive oil, bananas and wine.

The United States is a nation of coffee drinkers with only one state—Hawaii—able to grow coffee. Organic coffee imports accounted for more than $330 million of the total organic import value in 2014, the largest category by far of the organic imports.

The second-largest organic product imported by the U.S. is soybeans. The U.S. is the world’s largest soybean grower, and normally exports more than one-third of its soybean crop. Domestic production of organic soybeans, however, has stagnated at very low levels since early 2000, despite the growing demand for the product by organic feed users and organic processors. Organic corn is the tenth most imported organic food product, even though the U.S. leads the world in corn output. Like soybeans, organic corn production in the U.S. has fallen far short of demand, with domestic output only marginally rising in the past decade.

Organic soybeans and organic corn command high price premiums in the U.S. Organic feed-grade soybeans now sell for around $25 per bushel versus the average price for conventional soybeans of around $9 per bushel; organic yellow feed corn sells for around $14 per bushel versus the conventional price of around $4 per bushel.

“Going organic is not easy, but this report identifies that there is opportunity for U.S. farmers in both the domestic and global organic market. This study provides critical new data not only for farmers, but for the industry, lawmakers and other policymakers to design programs and supply chain partnerships that will encourage more organic production and help our farmers make the transition to organic,” said Batcha.

OTA is an official cooperator in the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA’s) Market Access Program (MAP) to promote U.S. organic products abroad.

The Organic Trade Association (OTA) is the membership-based business association for organic agriculture and products in North America. OTA is the leading voice for the organic trade in the United States, representing over 7,000 organic businesses across 50 states. Its members include growers, shippers, processors, certifiers, farmers' associations, distributors, importers, exporters, consultants, retailers and others. OTA’s Board of Directors is democratically elected by its members. OTA's mission is to promote and protect the growth of organic trade to benefit the environment, farmers, the public and the economy.