Organic Broadcaster

After USDA halts organic check-off proposal, groups look for alternatives

By Audrey Alwell, MOSES

The USDA terminated the proposed rule for an organic check-off program in May due to a “lack of consensus within the industry in support for the proposed program.” The agency’s unexpected move shocked the program’s proponents, while opponents breathed sighs of relief. The question left on the table now is how to fund the research and promotion of organic that both sides agree are needed.

“If there was ever a need for an organic check-off, it is now,” said Laura Batcha, CEO of the Organic Trade Association (OTA), which put forward the “GRO Organic” proposal. “A check-off would raise critical funds to spend on research to make organic farmers successful, technical services to accelerate the adoption of organic practices, and consumer education and promotion of the organic brand.” The proposed check-off would have allowed the organic sector to “speak to the American consumer in a strong and unified voice,” Batcha added.

Clearly disappointed with the USDA’s halt of the proposed rule, which she called “stunning and unacceptable,” Batcha said OTA is beginning to reassess ways forward.

“As we face the reality, once again, that government is not willing to keep pace, our hope is that critics will join with us to find creative and constructive solutions on how to advance organic,” she said.

Jim Riddle, an organic “elder” and vocal opponent of the GRO Organic proposal, is eager to be part of planning an alternative. He is dusting off a few of the suggestions he made during the initial exploration of an organic check-off program.

“I really like the idea of having a ‘checkout checkoff’ where shoppers are asked to round up their grocery totals to the nearest dollar, with the proceeds going to support organic research and promotion,” Riddle said. “Consumers and retailers need to help support organic programs—it can’t all be funded by organic farmers and processors.”

The termination of the current check-off proposal doesn’t prevent submissions of new proposals. In fact, the USDA has said the termination “allows USDA to engage fully with all interested parties to discuss and consider the future needs of the industry.”

Riddle said he sees the USDA’s rejection as “an opportunity to reunite the organic community.”

The Organic Farmers Association (OFA), which Riddle recently helped found, plans to poll its members on what alternatives they would support. The group’s director, Kate Mendenhall, said she wants to be sure any alternative includes the voice and vision of organic farmers.

“Seventy-one percent of all certified organic operations in the U.S. are farmers,” Mendenhall said. “Farmers far outnumber processors, and the majority (over 75%) of these farmers operate small or mid-size farms. They developed this thriving organic market, and they deserve to help lead its future.”

Some creative solutions for funding organic research and promotion already exist, at least on a smaller scale.

Organic Valley developed Farmers Advocating for Organic—a grant program funded entirely by voluntary contributions from its farmers—when the 2002 Farm Bill provided organic farmers an exemption from national research and promotion orders. The grant program funds research, education, and advocacy projects that “protect and promote the organic industry and the livelihood of organic farmers.” Nonprofits and research institutions may apply for grants from $5,000 to $50,000.

Another solution already in development is the Organic Voices initiative, which is a coalition of about 30 companies, including Organic Valley, Stonyfield, and Nature’s Path. Organic Voices developed the Only Organic website (www.onlyorganic.org) and the Just Label It campaign to educate consumers about the benefits of organic food and to advocate for mandatory GMO labeling.

A program already in place at the national level to fund research and education is the USDA’s Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) project. While this project isn’t focused specifically on organic research, SARE does occasionally put out calls for research focused on organic production.

OFA’s Mendenhall pointed out that the way forward may or may not include a nationwide council or program to oversee funding for research, promotion, and technical assistance. “But, since organic farmers are highly innovative, we are certain creative solutions can be identified by including them at the table,” she added.

Organizers of the annual MOSES Organic Farming Conference plan to hold a workshop about organic check-off alternatives at the 2019 conference (Feb. 21-23 in La Crosse, Wis.). And, just prior to MOSES 2019, industry thinkers will be participating in a one-day conference, Organic 2051, designed to lay out the path forward for organic and sustainable agriculture for the critical years beyond the population’s 10-billion mark. Additional ideas for collectively funding organic research and promotion could come out of that think tank.

Audrey Alwell is the communications director for MOSES.

 

 

 

From the July | August  2018 Issue

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