Should organic producers and processors support a research and promotion program? Developing a pool of dollars, funded and governed by the organic community with or without USDA involvement, is discussed in the articles below.
The Organic Check-Off Program – Another View
By Ed Maltby
The whole organic community agrees that we need to promote organic agriculture and fund research into production practices that improve efficiency and sustainability of farmers who become organically certified. However, the best path to that end currently is being debated. A significant percentage of the organic community are seeking a technical regulatory fix that allows organic farmers to withdraw their check-off dollars from supporting conventional agriculture but does not support legislation that lays the groundwork to the establishment of an Organic Research and Promotion Program. We1 believe that legislation creating a pathway to a federal, mandated, USDA, multi-commodity ‘Organic Research and Promotion Program’ is premature and that the National Research and Promotion Programs (NRPP) model is not a viable option for the organic industry.
The agricultural community is well aware of the short-comings and pitfalls of NRPP, also referred to as check-off programs, especially for the farmers. With a governing committee appointed by the Secretary of Agriculture, NRPP funds are typically controlled by processors and manufacturers rather than farmers. We feel that this has led to consolidation and lower prices for the raw products. Our research shows that existing regulation prohibits NRPP from discussing the benefits of one farming system over another (comparative promotion), so an organic program would not be able to combat negative comments about organic. Currently, only those producers that market 100% organically certified product have the ability to opt out of these check-off programs.
The organic community recognizes and supports the need to find a technical fix, via legislative language, that will broaden the exemption to allow all organic producers and handlers to opt out of the NRPP, and return check-off dollars to organic producers and processors to use as they wish. Furthermore, if legislation advocating for only the technical fix is supported by the whole organic community, including Washington-based advocacy groups, sustainable agricultural organizations and leading processors and retailers, we believe it will find the necessary congressional support to become law either as an amendment to the Farm Bill, in an appropriations bill or attached to an omnibus bill. This can return more choice to organic producers and processors in how their check-off dollars are spent.
Any discussion on funding for organic research and promotion needs to happen within an industry-wide discussion that has a format that aggressively works to include all stakeholders, especially those producers who are already paying into the NRPP, in a process similar to that used to develop the Organic Action Plan.
These discussions should:
• Analyze the advantages of pooling check-off funds against possible restrictive guidelines, heavy bureaucracy, lack of accountability and cost of administration.
• Examine in depth the different models that can be used to organize and govern the decisions on assessments and disbursement of funds, some of which are:
o Create a regional response similar to the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education model (SARE), which can promote geographically diverse research and promotion;
o Replicate the Organic Valley farmer controlled program (Farmers Advocating for Organics (FAFO)) that may be replicated in other commodities,;
o Allow the individual producers and processors could direct their check-off monies directly to the educational and organic promotion programs initiated by producer- and consumer-controlled organizations like OFARM, NODPA, WODPA, MODPA, NOC, CCOF, NOFA, OFRF and MOSES.
• Reach consensus on who will be assessed, what will be assessed and how the assessment will be collected,
• Ensure that these promotional dollars would assist with keeping family farm producers in business.
For more information please go to: www.nodpa.com/checkoff_opposition.shtml.
Ed Maltby is the Executive Director of the Northeast Organic Dairy Producers Alliance.
Sector Explores Pooling Resources to Expand Organic Agriculture
By Melissa Hughes
According to a recent survey, only one in ten consumers understands the difference between natural and organic labels. Other studies show that consumers trust the “natural” label more than the organic label, believing “natural” means no pesticides, no herbicides and no genetically modified organisms. Meanwhile, a study from Stanford University, an American
Academy of Pediatrics’ clinical report and a Dec. 3 Time magazine article have all required responses to clear up confusion about the attributes of organic products.
Despite incredible growth in the organic sector, we cannot ignore that many consumers do not grasp the meaning of the USDA Organic seal. Many companies—in fact, most—have been forced to include basic organic education in their marketing.
At Organic Valley, we must educate consumers about the value of organic first, and then about organic milk. With hundreds of other companies each developing their own messaging about organic, the combined effect upon consumers is dilution of the information.
For this reason, Organic Valley is among the businesses working with the Organic Trade Association (OTA) to explore the creation of an Organic Research and Promotion Program (ORPP). Last year, the OTA Board authorized exploration of this idea as an opportunity to create a unified voice for educating consumers. The main focus has been the structure of “check-off” programs.
Check-off programs are peculiar “quasi-governmental” entities. Industry asks for the program, USDA provides the structure and collects the funds, and the sector governs it within the confines of government regulation. It is up to the sector to determine who pays into the fund, who the stakeholders are, and how the funds are distributed. Many of these questions get answered in the formation process.
For the most part, check-off programs have been unwilling to promote organic choice, and, in fact, ignore organic. An organic-specific research and promotion board could help promote organic as a choice for consumers today.
Research is also covered by a research and promotion program. There are many examples of nutritional and research studies used to promote commodities in the check-off programs: milk has been promoted as a source of calcium, and eggs as a good choice for protein. In the conversations surrounding an ORPP, many have already highlighted research needs and opportunities for the organic sector. These needs also include research specific to helping organic farmers improve and innovate their practices, filling the research gap created by a lack of funding for land grant universities and extension programs.
Creating an ORPP
There are two “technical fixes” that need to happen in order for an ORPP to come to existence.
The First Step: In the 2002 Farm Bill, Congress enacted an exemption from commodity orders for persons who solely produce and market 100 percent organic products. The implementing regulations for this exemption made it difficult for producers to access the exemption and impossible for some groups, like dairy processors. Therefore, some have continued to pay into the check-offs. This requires legislation to clarify and broaden the exemption to all organic production.
The Second Step: In addition, under current Research and Promotion legislation, the organic industry does not qualify to create a research and promotion board because it is multi-commodity. This would require amending the Research and Promotion legislation to accommodate multiple-commodity programs.
This two-step process will simply get the organic sector to the starting block on possible creation of an ORPP board. Once these steps are completed, the industry will still need to establish a framework (governance, programs and plans, assessments and exemptions), survey the sector for support, draft a program/order, seek USDA advice and counsel, and get USDA’s support for creating the order. Although OTA is fostering the technical fixes and ORPP conversation, an ORPP, if established, would be governed by a board of directors chosen by the greater organic industry. It is estimated that the entire process (if the industry decides to create the ORPP), could take up to three years.
Cooperation and communication are important to everyone involved in this conversation. In fact, having a successful discussion throughout the sector is crucial. OTA is encouraging this conversation through an OTA list serve for input and updates (www.OTA.com/orpp.html), and by holding Town Hall meetings and webinars.
We encourage you to be part of this dialog to help shape the final decision and direction on a possible ORPP.
Melissa Hughes is General Counsel for Organic Valley.