OTA's ‘Organic Week’ tackles industry's outlook, inclusion

The Organic Trade Association’s annual conference brought together industry giants, activists and innovators to discuss the future of organic agriculture and more.

Audarshia Townsend, Content Director, Food & Beverage Insider

June 6, 2024

7 Min Read
Next Generation of Organic panel convenes at Organic Week.Photos: Organic Trade Association

At a Glance

  • USDA Ag Vilsack pledges $75 million to expand organic, backs climate-smart farming.
  • Black and brown farmers push for more inclusion in organic industry during thought-provoking panel.
  • Cassava, sustainable palm oil, other ingredients discussed at Organic Week.

What’s great about the Organic Trade Association (OTA) is that though the longtime organization attracts industry giants like Once Upon a Farm co-founder John Foraker and political heavyweights such as Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack to speak at its events, the group knows the importance of maintaining a grassroots presence.

That’s the purpose behind Organic Week, with this year’s three-day conference occurring in mid-May at the Park Hyatt Washington, D.C. The event gathered analysts, innovators, thought-leaders, activists and others to candidly discuss the state of the organic industry.

“We’re really looking at 2024 as being the heart rate year for the organic market,” Tom Chapman, co-CEO of OTA, said during a briefing with the media. “We see consumers opting for more environmentally friendly, more animal welfare friendly products and are looking at [organic] as a solution to those needs … we also see Gen Z in our consumer survey that we released recently really leaning more into organic as the label of choice.”

The various sessions throughout the conference addressed these subjects and more. Most notably, the ones focused on sustainable food ingredients highlighted market and innovation opportunities. For example, the Organic Sugar and Sweeteners Outlook featured Joe Rouleau, head of sustainability at Ciranda, who spoke at length about cassava (Manihot esculenta), the tuberous edible plant native to Brazil.

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“Right now, it's having the largest producer export, especially when it comes organic,” Rouleau revealed. “Cassava can grow in very drought-type conditions and poor soils … It does yield pretty good roots within about six months. Farmers can leave it for about another six months in the soil, but it gets a little too fibrous if you go too long.”

Another panel focused on the controversial palm oil. Here, Felipe Guerrero, executive vice president of the Colombia-based Daabon — a leading producer of sustainable and organic palm oil — thoroughly outlined the pros and cons of the ingredient. Guerrero said Daabon is the first company to offer certified organic palm oil products as well as the first to offer certified organic and Rainforest Alliance certified palm oil products.

Guerrero maintained palm oil is the highest yielding vegetable oil crop in the world. “If we didn't have palm oil, we would need three or four times the amount of land in the world in order to allow for people to eat vegetable oil,” he explained. “So, it's unreplaceable from an efficiency point of view.” Guerrero added that some of the supply chain issues impacting palm oil have included climate change, regulatory issues, logistical issues like the drought in the Panama Canal and ethical labor.

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Guerrero continued, adding that out of 78 million tons of global palm oil being produced annually, only 0.4%, or 200,000 tons, is organic. Also, the numbers are whittled down concerning the United States. Only 1.7 million tons of the 78 million tons make it to the U.S., he said, because the country is a new frontier for palm oil (Guerrero did not share statistics on how much of this palm oil is organic, yet he did offer that “some of it goes to biodiesel, and most of it goes to food and to cosmetics”).

Additional takeaways from Organic Week 2024

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Keynote speech by Tom Vilsack

The secretary of agriculture stressed the importance of financially helping the organic industry expand and ensuring that small and mid-sized farming operations in America have a chance for survival. “We've invested to date $75.2 million in 93 projects under the Organic Market Development Initiative,” Vilsack said. “We believe that these initiatives and these projects will allow us to potentially assist and help 50,000 producers across the country and perhaps create products for nearly 100 million consumers.”

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During his speech, Vilsack also mentioned his department’s Climate Smart Agriculture Commodity Initiative, which he believes is an “incredibly important opportunity for us to begin to redefine how we think about agriculture in this country.”

He added, “There may be as many as 200 practices that could potentially increase and improve the condition of soil, water quality, biodiversity, and the capacity of producers to maintain and conserve their farms to be more productive over time … We have today over 3,000 producers that are involved.”

The organic pea market

Nicole Atchison, Ph.D, CEO, PURIS Proteins, focused on opportunities for American organic farmers looking to diversify their crops. With consumers more interested than ever in plant-based proteins, China has dominated the pea space, aggressively dumping pea protein into the market at prices less than 50% of the cost of it, she said. To support this claim, she pointed to a recent investigation by the company, which also alleged Chinese pea protein producers are tied to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), operating with intent to harm the domestic industry.

Atchison has observed this ever-growing demand for pea protein spilling into organic. “It’s a big driver of the market,” Atchison added. “There are a lot of reasons people are looking for plant-based proteins, and why they're looking for organic. It checks a lot of boxes.”

According to Atchison, the number of pea acres in North America is between 70,000 and 100,000 a year. “There's an opportunity for some of those farmers who are growing organic soybeans or organic corn to be looking at some of these up-and-coming crops that actually have potential to be sold and are growing,” she advised. “Plus, the pea industry is way smaller than corn and soy.” In other words, there’s plenty of room to grow.

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Expanding the benefits of organic into the next generation

One group who might eagerly take her advice and start growing organic peas for pea protein is the next generation of farmers. Others who might benefit are Black and brown farmers, who are increasingly getting a seat at the organic industry table.

Organized by Stephanie Jerger, vice president of operations at OTA, a dynamic panel of experts discussed their efforts in ensuring that the next generation does indeed get the message. Equally important, they said, was getting the support and mentorship of established industry insiders like the members of OTA.

Moderated by Jessica Wright, vice president of product intelligence, SPINS, the panel consisted of Kaia Shivers, Ph.D., founder, Black Farmers Index; Jennifer Bryant, program manager, Black Employee Ownership Initiative and Project Equity; and Vanessa Garcia Polanco, government relations director, National Young Farmers Coalition.

“How do we make sure that we are setting up a system that ensures a more accessible, inclusive and sustainable organic market?” Wright posed the question to the audience and distinguished panel. Each expert offered a thought-provoking solution to her query, but it was Bryant who succinctly brought home the point.

“We foresee that the trajectory of the organic market is going to continue to grow,” she said. “And as we think about the next generation of consumers and how their purchasing power is going to increase, we need to make sure that the farmers and the agricultural sector is prepared, plus the next generation is prepared to support the demand from those consumers.”

Bryant stressed the importance of more Black organic farming mentors. “I implore anybody in the USDA, because you have to be certified for three years (to be a mentor), to exempt Black farmers who have their organic certification to bring them on so they can give other Black farmers real-time lessons on what it takes to go through this complicated (certification) process.”

Finally, Bryant addressed audience members charged with managing supply chains for their businesses.

“You as the company must create a program that walks them into your company in a way that is with humanity and dignity,” she explained. “Understand that they're not going to have what the average white farmer has because they're just coming into the game.

“I get a lot of, ‘Well, I tried to help with a Black farmer, but it just didn't work out.’ It just didn't work out because you were forcing a farmer to fit your program, instead of changing your program to bring the farmer on.”

This was the first time Organic Week developed a panel with such candid discourse. The aim is to continue to facilitate difficult conversations as well as other meaningful discussions to help grow the organic market.

Planning for the next Organic Week is underway; it will occur Sept. 15-17, 2025. For more information, register here.

About the Author(s)

Audarshia Townsend

Content Director, Food & Beverage Insider, Informa Markets

A lifelong Chicagoan, Audarshia Townsend is an award-winning, veteran food and beverage journalist who serves as the content director for the Food & Beverage Insider brand. She is Informa Markets' 2024 "Star Storyteller" winner. Her experience as a visionary editor and writer spans 30 years, with an emphasis in print and digital magazines. Audarshia's professional passion is to champion and amplify underserved business communities. Some of her most recent content includes her review of 2023's F&B trends, the future of food science careers, an interview with culinary star Padma Lakshmi, and Pescavore's sustainable ahi tuna jerky strips. She also appears regularly on local and national media outlets to discuss food and beverage trends, most notably FOX-32 Chicago, WGN-TV, WXRT-FM, NPR-Chicago and the Travel Channel. She is often called on to serve as a judge for prestigious food, beverage and restaurant awards, including the James Beard Foundation, NEXTY Awards and Black Women in Food. She continues to write for Chicago magazine, and previously she has written for the likes of the Chicago Tribune, Eater Chicago, Esquire, Essence, Los Angeles Times, Playboy, Time Out Global and World’s Best Bars. With food and beverage being her longtime, chosen beat in media, she has created content for a number of prestigious brands such as AOL, Google, Lawry’s Seasoned Salt, Lexus, MasterCard, Markon Cooperative Inc., Miller Brewing Co., Resy and Simplot Foods.

To date, Audarshia has guest lectured at the following higher-education institutions: Columbia College Chicago and Loyola University Chicago for undergraduate journalism students; Northwestern University for graduate journalism students; and Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT) for undergraduate, graduate and PhD food science students. She also mentors aspiring young writers and journalists whenever she can. Email her at [email protected] and also connect with her on LinkedIn.

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