The U.S. government will boost support for production of organic crops and produce this year to meet growing consumer demand and boost rural incomes, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack said on Wednesday.
"There's been significant expansion and interest in organics. Both the number of producers expanding and the sales expanding are an indication that this is a fast-growing aspect of agriculture," Vilsack told Reuters in an interview.
Growing demand for organic goods could be especially helpful to smaller family operations, Vilsack said. The more diverse the operations and the more growing market sectors there were in American agriculture, he noted, the better off the U.S. rural economy would be.
According to data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), there are currently 19,474 certified organic operations in the United States and 27,814 around the world. The number of U.S.-certified organic operations rose by more than 5 percent in the last 12 months.
Sales of organics jumped 11.3 percent in 2014 to almost $40 billion, Vilsack said.
Organic agriculture uses methods that avoid most synthetic materials such as pesticides and antibiotics. USDA organic standards prescribe how farmers grow crops and raise livestock and which materials they may use. The standards cover food products from farm to table, including soil and water quality, pest control, livestock practices and food additives.
Demand for organic food, from fruits and vegetables to meat and grains, has risen steadily in the last decade as consumers become more concerned about genetically modified crops and foods as well as chemicals used in the food chain, from fertilizers and herbicide residues to antibiotics in livestock.
Consumers have shown they will pay higher prices for certified organic foods, which has made such operations even more attractive for producers.
In a separate report on Wednesday, the Organic Trade Association said that a total of $550 million worth of organic products were exported in 2014, up $141 million from 2012. Apples, lettuce, grapes, spinach and strawberries were the top U.S. organic exports, with Canada and Mexico the top destinations.
USDA, using funds from the 2014 farm bill, will create a new Organic Integrity Database this year, Vilsack said, that will provide up-to-date information on certified organic production, sellers and buyers to speed market development.
"The challenge long term is going to be maintaining the value-added proposition of organic by making sure there is integrity in the market," Vilsack told Reuters.