Last October, the USDA marked its 10th year of overseeing certified organic products. On the heels of that milestone anniversary, Quality Assurance International (QAI), a certifier of organic and gluten-free products that has certified more than 55,000 products in more than 48 U.S. states and 10 countries, issued its 10-year forecast for the organic industry.
Although a 10-year prediction might seem far-reaching, especially in such a temperamental economic climate, Jaclyn Bowen, QAI’s general manager, said that QAI has been active with organic since its formative years, having been founded one year prior to Congress’ passage of the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990—all of which gives the company a broad vantage point for future expectations. “We realized we have a huge database of organic statistics and knowledge that we could share to help the industry plan for a more organic future,” she said. “We believe the organic industry’s future is bold and broad, rigorous and accessible, more mainstream and less fringe.”
Ms. Bowen said QAI examined both past and present organic milestones to determine where the organic industry would likely be by the 20th anniversary of USDA Organic. QAI’s findings were distilled down into the following eight predictions:
- Prediction #1: Stricter Organic - The USDA’s National Organic Program and National Organic Standards Board will bring even more rigor to the federal regulations in terms of specificity for practices and allowed substances and practices. Government oversight will make it more difficult for “organic” to be used loosely as a marketing term, i.e. “Organic Café” or “Organic Resort.”
- Prediction #2: Food Safety Fusion - The organic food supply will fuse with food safety and other “product integrity” programs, adding more disciplined food safety practices that are audited and certified at even the smallest of farms and plants. Organic and food safety audits will be increasingly synchronized. QAI anticipates continued growth in the offering of multiple audits so companies may bundle organic, gluten-free, kosher, and/or numerous food safety audits into one thorough audit and inspection.
- Prediction #3: Harmonic Convergence - International standards for organic will be harmonized with USDA organic, removing former obstacles to international trade. The U.S. also will move closer to its European neighbors in non-GMO verification and labeling requirements.
- Prediction #4: Sustainably Organic - Increased focus on companies’ impact on biodiversity, water and soil conservation will translate to additional sustainability metrics in organic practices. As the spirit of organic is to grow in harmony with nature, each farm and company’s environmental impact will be under more scrutiny.
- Prediction #5: Transparency Made Tangible - Consumers need to know and trust the sourcing of the products they buy will drive total transparency in the organic production chain, and make QR (quick response) codes—already introduced by QAI in July 2012—commonplace for all organic certificates and on packaging. The USDA Seal for organic will remain credible, and online tools will be used by consumers to see the credibility of each product’s organic claims.
- Prediction #6: No More Shopping Gaps - Practical steps will be taken to be more inclusive and steps will be taken to include new or emerging industry sectors. This will make organic certification available in sectors currently excluded in the regulations—like aquaculture/seafood. It also will address underserved categories like dietary supplements, pet food, personal care, cleaning supplies, fiber and flowers. If it starts with a plant, mammal or fish, it can be certified organic. Consumers will be able to find certified organic products in all sections of the supermarket and pharmacy.
- Prediction #7: Organic Literacy is Evident - After years of some confusion in the marketplace, efforts by the NOP, Organic Trade Association, and retailers pay off in increased consumer literacy for organic. Land grant universities also help increase knowledge in organic through their own research initiatives and increase in organic and sustainable agriculture tracks.
- Prediction #8: Accessible Organic - Larger organic production, from farm acreage expansion to processing facilities, will translate into organic landing where it is most needed: schools, hospitals, food banks, convenience stores and in mainstream America’s home.
QAI said its predictions represented “a drastic shift” from the industry environment that was in place in 1989, the year QAI was founded. At that time there was no federal program for organic in existence and the industry was 100% self-regulated. There were also an estimated one dozen organic certification agencies operating in North America, and the USDA reported 5,328 U.S. organic growers with only 2,264 certified.
By 2002, the year USDA organic became federal law, there were an estimated 25 organic certification agencies accredited by USDA, thus giving them legal authority to certify farming, livestock and handling practices in compliance with the newly codified federal regulations for USDA organic. USDA statistics showed 7,323 organic farms with 1,925,534 total acres in organic production. QAI conducted 639 distinct organic certifications in 2002 for customers in 42 states and 11 countries.
Thus far in the organic industry of 2013, there are 87 accredited certifying agencies listed by the USDA, 49 of which are based in the U.S., and a total of 17,281 organic farms and processing facilities in the U.S. certified to USDA organic standards, a 136% increase since 2002. USDA’s most recent survey shows organic acreage has grown to 3,648,896 acres, a growth of 89% since 2002. The OTA reports current industry sales at $31.5 billion, a 9.5% growth rate over the prior year. QAI’s growth mirrors the organic industry’s growth with 1,681 distinct certifications, a 163% increase over 2002.