These are novel times for the U.S. food system, and the nation's organic agriculture sector isn't immune to changes brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.
But one thing hasn't changed: strong consumer demand. "They continue to be highly interested in organic," said Laura Batcha, CEO/executive director of the Organic Trade Association, or OTA.
In fact, at least for now, the industry is benefiting from pandemic-related sales. For instance, organic produce sales jumped 50% in the early days of the pandemic, when people were stocking up their pantries, and rose 20% overall this spring, according to information from the OTA.
Other categories, such as organic eggs, organic milk and packaged and frozen organic foods, also saw sales increases as consumers ate at home more often during the pandemic, the OTA said.
The 2020 increases come on top on record organic sales of $55.1 billion in 2019, up from 5% from the previous year.
But the pandemic has hurt organics in some ways, too. Many farmers' markets were closed, at least temporarily, and organic farms that sell to restaurants have been affected.
Nonetheless, "On balance, the industry has fared well during the pandemic," Batcha said. About 90% of organic food is eaten at home, so the powerful trend of more food consumption at home and less at restaurants is working on organics' favor and more than offsets the negative impacts.
Still, there are questions about the pandemic's longer-term affect on organic sales. Organic products generally cost more than conventionally raised counterparts, so a national economic downturn seemingly would reduce consumers' ability to buy organics.
Batcha said there have been important changes since the 2007-2009 Great Recession, which also reduced consumer demand for organics. "The distribution (of organic products) is much wider now, and the range or products in the marketplace is much wider" — a combination that bodes for the industry.