STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — Organic food is not necessarily locally grown.
In fact, a lot of the organic soybeans fed on American livestock farms come from Turkey, and U.S. organic produce is a hot ticket abroad.
European Union officials met with U.S. leaders and farmers on Tuesday at the Hyatt Place State College to discuss ways to improve organic trade between the two economic powerhouses.
The EU isn’t the biggest market for U.S. organics — that would be Canada, as in many other export categories — but it’s still an important market with plenty of organic-friendly consumers.
The biggest reason Europeans choose organic products is the desire to avoid pesticides and antibiotics in their food, said Nicolas Verlet, head of the organics unit at the EU’s Directorate-General for Agriculture and Rural Development.
As selling points, environmental friendliness and strong animal welfare standards are almost as important.
The United States is by far the biggest organic market, generating $50 billion of the world’s $90 billion in sales.
And with less than 6 percent of the U.S. food supply produced organically, there’s plenty of room to grow here, said Monique Marez, director of international trade at the Organic Trade Association.
While many U.S. farmers focus on the domestic market, exporting organic products can make sense.
“Sure, you want to be successful in the United States, but you might be the first product of your kind in Japan, in Taiwan,” Marez said.
The U.S. exports a lot of organic produce but remains a net importer of organic products.
Organic trade with the EU has spiked since 2012, when the two signed an equivalency agreement.
The document allows vendors to sell their products in a foreign market without additional certification.
The U.S. has these agreements with several key trading partners and is in talks with Canada, Chile, Japan, South Korea and Switzerland to collaborate more closely.
The plan isn’t to create an international organic standard but to streamline administrative procedures, said Kelly Strzelecki, senior trade adviser for the USDA’s Foreign Agricultural Service.
The group would also look for ways to reduce fraud.
Grains improperly labeled as organic have been a concern recently, though the topic attracted little attention at Tuesday’s meeting.
An even bigger question mark right now for European trade, organic food or otherwise, is the United Kingdom.
Britain is Europe’s top importer of U.S. organic products and a conduit for many products moving between the U.S. and Europe.
But the U.K. is set to leave the European Union next April, and organics are just one of the 1,200 topics it needs to iron out by then.
Britain has said its current intention is to continue following the EU’s regulations in the near term. “There’s a high level of interest in the U.K. in just keeping trade flowing,” Strzelecki said.
Meanwhile, the European Union recently revamped its organic regulations.
Europeans have been thinking about many of the same issues animating U.S. organic farmers — outdoor access for poultry, stocking density for livestock, hydroponics.
The new regulations allow group certification, which can help small farmers save money, and provide guidance for investigating suspected contamination with nonorganic chemicals.
“The regulation makes the market,” Verlet said.
One of the biggest mistakes U.S. companies make when planning to export to the EU is treating the entire bloc as one market, Marez said.
“From my experience, European customers are interested in buying a product from their home country first, and then from the European Union next, and then an imported product” from the U.S., she said.
In the EU, recognition of the USDA organic seal is smaller than for some European domestic labels, so companies have to tailor their marketing to a particular country.
U.S. farm products also have to overcome Europeans’ generally negative views toward large-scale conventional agriculture.
“We do a lot of work on trying to educate how those things are different and how this standard really aims at sustainability goals that are so important to our customers in the European Union,” Marez said.
The European organic label doesn’t face quite the same hurdles in the United States, which can be approached as a single market.
Still, U.S. organic exports to Europe may be far greater than the $11 million reported.
Because of database coding, U.S. exports are tracked for only 40 organic items. Changes to European recordkeeping should give a much fuller picture starting next year.
“My instinct says that $11 million (the current figure) is far below the actual trade that we’re doing there,” Marez said.
Considering the scale of its organic production, Pennsylvania has export opportunities.
The state is the second biggest U.S. producer of organic ag products, thanks in large part to the poultry and dairy sectors.
The state Agriculture Department wants 10 percent of the state’s farmers and processors to be at least on the way to offering something certified organic by 2020.
“Market prices argue for at least giving it a shot,” said Cheryl Cook, a Pennsylvania deputy ag secretary.
Expanding organic animal production in Pennsylvania could help meet ever-growing demand, but the biggest challenge is access to organic feed, Cook said.
Soybeans are the largest U.S. organic import, even though the U.S. is the world’s largest grower of the crop.
“We have a real opportunity to transition conventional growers to organic to meet this demand,” Marez said.
Another challenge — organic farming often involves tillage, and many Pennsylvania farmers have switched to no-till.
And increasing large-scale poultry production would produce a lot of manure at a time when the state is trying to reduce nutrient loads in the Chesapeake Bay watershed, said Kristy Borrelli, a Penn State Extension agronomist.
Bell & Evans, a Fredericksburg-based chicken company that offers organic products, is thinking of adding a manure-to-energy system to address those concerns, Cook said.
In short, Pennsylvania organic farmers probably have something that European consumers want.
“Please know that we are a trade-friendly commonwealth,” Hannah Smith-Brubaker, executive director of the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture, told the EU delegation.