“The last couple of years we have all been building towards the organic checkoff, which obviously was our unified way of creating a rising tide that would lift all boats and address many of the issues that we face as an industry, including a need for research to back our claims and communications, and promote organic writ large.
"But now we are in a new era, and frankly we are going to have to do it ourselves,” Gary Hirshberg, co-founder and chief organic optimist at Stonyfield Organic, told attendees at the Organic Trade Associations annual policy conference in Washington, DC.
The conference brought together organic stakeholders from across commodities and up and down the supply chain a mere 10 days after USDA published in the Federal Register an unexpected termination of the rulemaking to establish a national research and promotion program for certified organic products.
After working with USDA for five years to craft the check-off program in a way that represented players from across the organic industry and did not disparage conventionally produced goods, the termination came “without consultation,” Laura Batcha, CEO of the Organic Trade Association, said.
“The move was really contrary to five years of work we did with the USDA where there were many of the structures and decisions that we brought forward that were built in consultation with them about what would work and what would not work,” she explained.
USDA's rationale 'perplexing at best'
She added that USDA’s rationale for terminating the check-off proposal so late in the game “was perplexing at best.”
The agency explained in the Federal Register notice that its decision was “based on uncertain industry support for and outstanding substantive issues with the proposed program.”
For example, USDA noted that among the 15,000 comments it received on the check-off proposed rule, there were concerns about how the de minimis level would eliminate a majority of organic farmers from the program, fears that there might be a disproportionate impact on high value commodities as assessments would be based on sales, and challenges related to tracing imported organic products, among other concerns.
While OTA members were disappointed by the decision, some others were not. The Organic Farmers Association was happy about the decision as the checkoff program would have created more paperwork for already burdened farmers. The Cornucopia Institute also lauded the agency’s decision to terminate what it considered to be an additional tax on organic.
The decision leaves OTA and those who supported the checkoff campaign back at square one and looking for solutions to promote and advance organic farming.
“Regardless of how anybody in the industry or stakeholders felt about the checkoff itself, there is absolute widespread consensus about the need for investment in education, promotion, research and extension in organic, and there needs to be a way for the private sector to participate directly in those investments. The checkoff happens to be the tool the USDA has most others use,” Batcha said.
While she did not commit to a path forward yet, she did note that the option of trying to work with USDA to propose a new checkoff campaign and facing "all the hurdles that we went through for years … is not a short or medium term play by any means.”
As such, she said, OTA and other industry stakeholders “will be exploring whether or not there is a feasible way to move forward on the private side.”
This might include a voluntary checkoff program, mechanisms through state boards or other ways to raise funds for collective goals.
Organic Voices offers industry a starting point
One option that is already in development is the Organic Voices initiative, which is a coalition of about 30 companies, including Stoneyfield, that are focused on gathering research and shopper insights related to organic and using those to help promote the industry.
So far the initiative has identified two key insights that the industry needs to address, said Hirshberg. The first is that consumers are confused about the difference between organic, non-GMO, local and other similar claims. The second is consumers are deeply suspicious and distrustful of government and corporations.
To address these, Organic Voices is trying to raise funds to focus on a combined effort “to rise the tide and lift all boats and do essentially what the checkoff would have done,” Hirshberg said.
Staying true to his job title of chief optimist, Hirshberg said he believes “we will eventually get back sanity in our relations with our government, but for now we have to do it on our own,” and if stakeholders work together they will eventually get there.