The Transition to Organic Agriculture

Europe is taking the lead in the shift to sustainable farming practices and organic food production. While the organic food sector is soaring in the U.S.—it represents the fastest-growing segment of the food industry—the government has done little to encourage it. Although the U.S. Department of Agriculture fields a small organic food research program, it amounts to only $3 million, less than .004 percent of its $74 billion budget. While American consumers are increasing their purchases of organic food, less than 0.3 percent of total U.S. farmland is currently in organic production.

© Jem Sullivan

By contrast, many of the EU member states have made the transition to organic agriculture a critical component of their economic development plans and have even set benchmarks. Germany, which has often been the leader in setting new environmental goals for the continent, has announced its intention to bring 20 percent of its agricultural output into organic production by the year 2020. (Organic agricultural output is now 3.2 percent of all farm output in Germany.)

The Netherlands, Sweden, Great Britain, Finland, Norway, Germany, Switzerland, Denmark, France and Austria also have national programs to promote the transition to organic food production. Denmark and Sweden enjoy the highest consumption of organic vegetables in Europe and both countries project that their domestic markets for organic food will soon reach or exceed 10 percent of domestic consumption.

Sweden has set a goal of having 20 percent of its total cultivated farm area in organic production by 2005. Italy already has 7.2 percent of its farmland under organic production while Denmark is close behind with seven percent.

Great Britain doubled its organic food production in 2002 and now boasts the second-highest sales of organic food in Europe, after Germany. According to a recent survey, nearly 80 percent of British households buy organic food. By comparison, only 33 percent of American consumers buy any organic food.