Writing in Food Policy, the Purdue University researchers hold up the EU, where organic production is subsidised by the state, as an example of a region that encourages certification.
“The EU approach has been to provide substantial financial assistance for farmers to be certified organic, while the US approach has been market-driven with little to no financial assistance,” they said.
They found that of those producers using organic practices in the United States, nearly three quarters were choosing not to certify organic.
“There is a substantial segment of US producers who are committed to using organic practices but have no intention to certify...These producers perceive substantial costs associated with certification, including the financial cost, dealing with a confusing process and interacting with the certifier,” they wrote.
The researchers suggest that if policy makers and food retailers want to increase certified organic production in the US, the barriers to certification need to be addressed.
Certainly, this ‘certification gap’ doesn’t exist in Europe, where, according to organic food and farming charity the Soil Association, there are very few – if any – producers who are using organic practices but are not certified.
“In Europe these subsidies mean that it is likely to pay for farmers who chose to adopt organic practices, to be certified as organic. As far are we are aware, there are therefore not many farmers who fully adopt organic farming practices which aren’t certified,” Louise Payton, policy officer at the Soil Association, told FoodNavigator.
She said that nonetheless, many non-organic farmers adopt best practice in some aspects of their production system – whether that be farmers ensuring the wellbeing of their animals or growers using clove in a rotation to improve the fertility of their soils.
“In fact, we are increasingly seeing non-organic farmers adopting organic approaches in light of the problems that non-organic practices can cause.”
Certification too costly for small UK farmers
Still, even with the system of subsidies, certification can be cost-prohibitive for farmers in the UK, who currently receive the lowest payments for organic in Europe.
“Unlike other countries in Europe and around the world, in the UK there is not as much government support for organic producers and for small farms, the cost of certification can be prohibitive,” said Payton.
The Soil Association charges smaller farms lower fees for certification, but Payton would like to see more research into ways for organic farmers to reduce their “otherwise pricey inputs”. At present, she said this field of research was “unsurprisingly shortcoming”.
She added that this is something the Soil Association is working to address through its Duchy Originals Future Farming Programme. This aims to support farmer-led, practical research into low input farming methods that are environmentally sustainable.
Financial incentives in the US?
The researchers concede that US tax payers are unlikely to support direct contributions towards organic certification, but suggest that retailers could provide financial incentives to increase the volume of US products that are certified organic.
Producers least likely to bother with organic certification were those supplying customers direct. The researchers concluded that this may be because the relationship these producers have with their customers is a “substitute” for certification, and because consumers who purchase directly from producers are willing to pay a higher premium for local than organic certified products.
Surveying fruit and veg producers
For the USDA-funded study, the researchers sent surveys to 4312 fruit and vegetable producers, resulting in 1016 usable responses. 45% of respondents use only conventional practices, 19% use a mix of conventional and organic and 36% use only organic practices. Of those who use any organic practices, 71% choose not to certify.
They found that large scale farms are more likely to be certified, and that producers who are very small (gross sales less than $5,000) have on average nearly 17% less certified production than large producers (gross sales over $250,000).
“This is expected since these very small producers are exempt from National Organic Program i.e. they can market their product as organic as long as they follow the national standards for production, labelling and record-keeping,” wrote the researchers.
Source: Food Policy 2014 http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.foodpol.2014.05.010
“To certify or not to certify? Separating the organic production
and certification decisions”
Authors: Michael D. Veldstra, Corinne E. Alexander, Maria I. Marshall