GUEST ARTICLE: Investing in our future: Why the time is right for an organic check-off
Seeking a national standard for organic certification was a huge step towards that stability and continuity, even though it meant bringing the National Organic Program under the guise of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Some no doubt argued that the USDA was the very last place we wanted to be. But over the course of the last twenty years, while it has been a difficult, challenging, complicated process, the value associated with the USDA Organic Seal is undeniable. The demand for organic is soaring.
Sales of organic food and non-food products in 2014 are expected to have approached the $40 billion mark, another new record. More than 80% of families in the United States now buy organic products.
Similarly, today, America’s certified organic stakeholders – farmers, ranchers, processors, distributors, retailers – are considering what is the most critical and potentially transformative issue for the organic industry since the first discussions over twenty years ago to develop national guidelines and regulations for the then fledgling sector – whether to adopt a national organic check-off.
The time is right for a research and promotion check-off program that is designed specifically for the organic sector. Difficult, challenging, complicated - absolutely. Haunted by broken, corrupt check-offs – terribly. But impossible? No. Should we stop the conversation because we are afraid it will not be perfect? How can we?
Many opportunities…and many challenges for organic
More farmers in America need to go organic. There are now around 17,000 organic farms and ranches in the country, out of an estimated total of 2.1 million; acreage used for organic agriculture accounts for just 0.6 percent of all U.S. farmland. Domestic organic production simply can’t keep up with the robust demand. Our country, the biggest agricultural producer in the world, is having to import organic food to feed America’s growing appetite.
Organic research has been left short. The 2014 Farm Bill expanded its organic research budget to $100 million over five years, but that’s a smidgen of the total $1.2 billion allocated for all federal agricultural research. Research for organic seed breeding is starving for funds, research on long-term organic farm system trials are few and far between, research into organic alternatives to control crop diseases and agricultural pests is rare.
And consumers are confused. One in four organic consumers are new to the market in the past year. These new organic shoppers often are not fully aware of all the benefits and guarantees that the certified organic seal represents. Even many seasoned organic shoppers who buy organic regularly have no idea there is a huge infrastructure of regulations and standards behind that organic seal.
Consumers are getting bombarded by unregulated claims on food
To add to the bewilderment, all consumers are getting bombarded by the unregulated claims on food that pop out at them everywhere in the supermarket.
The USDA Organic Seal is essentially a completed unfunded brand – there is no money coming from its owner – the U.S. government – to support the brand. For those of us in branded businesses, we recognize the need to invest back in the brand.
At Organic Valley, we look not only at how to invest in our brand but how to invest in our supply – our farmers. As a farmer-owned cooperative and pioneer in Organic, we understand the pinch of tight resources, how and when to balance consumer marketing, and why we must get more farmers in the pipeline and keep them on the land to farm for all our families.
This is largely an independent effort, and when we look at issues of organic feed costs, the need for more infrastructure and research, we see that we need a bigger boat. We need all of the organic industry to be supporting these conversations, the allocation of resources for the best priorities.
A unique program for a unique industry
An organic check-off would be unprecedented. Unlike the other national commodity research and promotion check-off programs, some of which have been a part of American agriculture for almost 50 years, the organic check-off program would not promote a specific commodity but instead a specific agricultural production process.
This is a critical difference – traditional commodity programs promote one commodity above all else – corn, soy, cotton. Diversity isn’t so exciting for the traditional programs. The organic check-off program promotes a process that adheres to stringent federal requirements to grow food without the use of toxic and persistent pesticides and GMOs, raise animals without antibiotics and hormones, and process food without preservatives and artificial colors. Many foods, many colors, many birds, many bees.
The organic industry is a diverse, unique industry, and the organic check-off would be designed to reflect the unique needs of the organic community. Based on a careful study of the industry’s needs over three years, comments from organic players throughout the chain, countless phone calls and numerous questionnaires, a framework for an organic check-off has emerged.
The check-off assessments would be broad and shallow, with all organic certificate holders throughout the system paying into the check-off and all benefitting. Administering the check-off would be a board that would reflect the sectors paying into the check-off, as well as having balanced regional representation. Producers would comprise at least half of the board.
Investing in the organic brand, and our future
It’s estimated that a check-off could raise up to $40m a year. That money would be spent on promotion, research, and education: promoting the benefits of organic and explaining why organic can sometimes cost more and why it is worth more, research that would translate into everyday solutions for organic farmers and encourage others to transition to organic practices.
It’s time to invest back in our movement - to fund research that will help organic farmers be successful, to create and innovate projects that will nurture new organic farmers and lead to more organic producers. It would strengthen the voice of the organic industry and allow us to get our message to the American consumer in a clearer and more unified voice.
Our destiny is well within our grasp. And while, yes - difficult, challenging, complicated - definitely not impossible.
Melissa Hughes is the General Counsel & Director of Government Affairs for Organic Valley, America’s largest cooperative of organic farmers and one of the nation’s leading organic brands. Melissa currently serves on USDA’s Advisory Committee on Biotechnology & 21st Century Agriculture and is the President of the Board of Directors for the Organic Trade Association.