The required three-year transition to convert a conventional field to organic can be a deterrent for some would-be organic farmers. Those 36 long, long months often put the farmer in the worst of both worlds: the land must be managed organically, but the crop must be marketed as conventional.
The higher cost of organic products might lead consumers to reach for the cheaper conventional version, even if they would prefer to buy organic. We don’t have to know all of the reasons why organic products are more expensive than their conventional counterparts; basic economics tells us that demand far exceeds supply.
Considering the two sides of the organic market mentioned above, and that the mission of the USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) is to create marketing opportunities for agricultural products and ensure the quality and availability of wholesome food, it’s not surprising that the USDA is rolling out a formalized transitional organic option, called the National Certified Transitional Program (NCTP). The first step is for certifying agencies get accredited to be able to offer the new, standardized transitional certification. According to AMS’s January 11 news release,
“This NCTP offers an opportunity for existing ACAs to certify producers and businesses to a consistent transitional standard utilized by the existing ACAs. This will facilitate the investment in transitional agriculture through a consistent set of rules, and ultimately support the continued growth of organic agriculture.”
The NCTP standards were developed by the Organic Trade Association (OTA). The actual standards are not available, but it is expected that the certified transitional operation will be required to meet the full organic standards, with the exception of the three year land transition requirement.
The OTA pushed for a standardized transitional certification in order to allow for improved support systems for transitioning farms, provide better insight to supply chain actors into future organic growth, and provide a premium to the transitional operation. Of course, it will also have the added benefit of “transitioning” customers into paying a higher price for organic products.
One risk to this program is for transitional products to compete with organic offerings, or to minimize the “organic” label. This is why there will not be a USDA “Certified Transitional” logo, and the NCTP will have mechanisms to ensure the operation will indeed complete the transition and become fully certified.
Transitional certification is a good thing for producers and consumers (and everyone in between). Consumers should soon have another, more economical option, and the farmer will (presumably) be rewarded for bringing that food to you. In the long run, this transitional certification should increase the overall amount of organic production, which continues to be a small fraction of demand.