The organic opportunity has never been greater, but realizing that opportunity will not be easy, according to a group of organic thought leaders who looked into the future on Sept. 17 and agreed that major challenges need to be overcome for organic to fulfill its potential and move significantly beyond its position of nearly five percent of the U.S. food supply.  

"The next three to five years are going to be mission-critical for what happens in organic 15 years from now," said Melissa Hughes, General Counsel of organic dairy cooperative Organic Valley and President of the Organic Trade Association (OTA) Board of Directors. "We have to figure out how to meet the needs of organic farmers now so they will be able to meet the needs of the future."

Hughes was part of a panel discussion on the current and future state of organic which kicked off OTA's two-day All Things Organic educational conference program at the Natural Products Expo East show in Baltimore. Moderated by OTA Executive Director and CEO Laura Batcha, the panel also included Danielle Nierenberg, founder of Food Tank, and Lynn Clarkson, President of Clarkson Grain.

The panel saw demand for organic products continuing to grow in the future. Several factors play into this scenario for continued strong organic demand: a growing awareness of the importance of eating healthy food, an increasing desire to know more about the source of our food and how it was produced, a generational shift in consumption and buying trends, and heightened concern about the environmental impacts of the practices of large-scale conventional and industrial agriculture.

The U.S. organic sector has exploded in the past two decades. Sales of organic in the United States broke through another record in 2014, totaling $39.1 billion, up more than 11 percent from the previous year, according to OTA's latest survey on the industry. Organic demand now cuts across all regions, all ages, and all income groups.

New information on the U.S. organic agricultural sector released by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) on Thursday showed that sales of organic crops and livestock at the farm-gate level reached $5.5 billion in 2014, up 72 percent from 2008. In the third survey of U.S. organic agriculture since 2008, USDA also said the industry shows potential for growth, with some 39 percent of organic farmers surveyed reporting that they intend to increase production over the next five years.