Is Organic Agriculture Taking Over?

A few days ago, the USDA released a new report on the amount of farmland and farm production that is certified organic.  I've seen a number of news stories tout the main result from the report summary:

Certified organic farms operated 4.4 million acres of certified land in 2015, up 20 percent from 2014

Given the price premiums for organic, I suspect there have been some more conversions over the last year, but I see several things wrong with the way this statistic has been covered.  First, what happened to the rest of (non-organic) farm acres in the US?  Are they up or down?   Second, Politico noticed something interesting about the result:

Organic acreage might be up 20 percent from 2014, according to the USDA’s 2015 organic census, but it’s not quite the good news the industry was hoping for. The vast majority of the bump — 96 percent of the new acres — is thanks to the certification of 700,000 acres in Alaska. Organic Trade Association spokeswoman Maggie McNeil says the new Alaska acreage stems from a single rangeland certification . . .

Finally, to get a real sense of the impact of organic production on the agricultural landscape, we need to put the figures in perspective.  As it turns out, organic still represents a very small segment of the farm sector.  I took the latest USDA organic report and tried to mesh it with other USDA data to figure out what percent of the acreage is organic for a given crop, and what percent of the value of production is organic.  I somewhat randomly picked a number of fruits and vegetables to compare and then also pulled out the major commodity crops.*  

The above figure suggests that 22.7% of all acres devoted to growing lettuce in the US were certified organic.  For eggs, 3.6% were organic.  For wheat acres, only 0.7% were organic.  Only 0.1% of beef cows were organic, and 001% of hogs and pigs were organic.  

It is important to note that the amount of acreage devoted to lettuce, carrots, apples, and snap beans is tiny compared to corn, soy, and wheat.  For example, in 2015, about 1.2 million acres were devoted to lettuce, carrots, apples, and snap beans - an amount that is only 1.4% of the amount of land devoted to corn alone.  The point is that even though fruits and vegetables seem to have a higher share devoted to organic than commodity crops, because commodity crops account for the vast majority of land farmed , the total or overall share of cropland in organic remains very small.  For corn, soybeans, and wheat acreage combined, only 1% of the land is organic.

Here's a similar figure but calculated instead as a share of the value of production (i.e., the share of dollars).  

One might expect that organic would represent a larger share of the value of production since prices of organic are higher.  Indeed, this is the case for eggs and apples.  However, it is important to realize the organic yields tend to be lower.  Thus, we tend to not get as much output (or quantity) for each unit of land in production.  So, in the case of lettuce, for example, 22.7% of the acres are organic but only 13.6% of the dollars come from organic.  I suspect this is a result of lower yields for organic despite the fact that organic commands a price premium.  

*Note on the calculations and comparisons: Which numbers should be used in the comparison wasn't always clear, and it also wasn't clear whether the regular USDA production numbers include organic or not (I assumed they did in my calculations, an assumption that, if wrong, would make the organic % higher than it actually is).  The organic report provided values for vegetables grown in the open and under protection; I summed the value of production for both types but because no acreage is provided for the production "under protection", the value is not included calculations.  For non-organic fruits and vegetables, I summed the production for both fresh and processed.  All that said, I tried to make the comparisons as fairly as I could.