In a groundbreaking move for the nation's organic sector, the Organic Trade Association (OTA), in collaboration with the GRO Organic Core Committee, on May 12 formally petitioned the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to begin steps to conduct a vote on and implement a research and promotion check-off program for the organic industry.
OTA's action reflects three years of dialogue with the entire organic sector and comes 25 years after Congress authorized USDA's National Organic Program. Marking the first time in the 49-year history of U.S. agricultural check-off programs that organic could be recognized as a distinct commodity class based on production practices, it could have significant and game-changing ramifications for the burgeoning organic sector.
Unlike any other check-off program, the proposed organic check-off has been designed to solve what hasn't worked in other research and promotion programs, emphasizes what has worked, and creates an innovative program tailor-made for organic.
"The organic industry in America is thriving and maturing, but it is at a critical juncture," said Laura Batcha, CEO and Executive Director of OTA. "Many consumers remain unaware of what that organic seal really means. Organic production in this country is not keeping pace with the robust demand. An organic check-off program would give organic stakeholders the opportunity to collectively invest in research, build domestic supply and communicate the value of the organic brand to advance the entire industry to a new level."
The proposal estimates the organic check-off, referred to as GRO Organic (Generic Research and Promotion Order for Organic), could raise over $30 million a year to advance the organic sector. Rooted in a strong focus on research to make farmers successful and technical services to accelerate the adoption of organic practices, the proposed program is designed to address organic's most pressing needs. OTA led the drive to explore the feasibility of an organic check-off, gathering information over three years throughout the country in town hall meetings, panel discussions, surveys and phone calls.
"The GRO Organic check-off is as unique as the sector it will be representing," said Melissa Hughes, Director of Government Affairs for Organic Valley, the nation's oldest organic dairy cooperative. "This is not your father's check-off. This check-off contains meaningful reforms to improve upon older check-offs. It has been painstakingly designed to reflect the diverse needs of the organic community, from the smallest organic farmer to the largest organic processor, and all the organic handlers, food makers, and organic businesses in-between."
More than 5,000 organic farms and businesses responded to OTA's extensive surveys, weighing in support of establishing a dedicated organic check-off by a margin of 2 to 1, with little or no difference in the amount of support between the size and types of operations.
How GRO Organic would work:
- The Check-off Board would be made up of 50 percent producers and 50 percent handlers.
- Producers will directly select their regional representatives through direct balloting.
- A referendum is required every seven years to decide whether or not to continue the program.
- Every single certificate holder subject to an assessment will have a direct vote – there is no bloc voting.
- Assessments would be made throughout the value chain: producers, handlers and processors, reflecting the full-chain production system.
- Organic producers would have the option of paying an assessment based on Net Organic Sales or Producer Net Profit, whichever they prefer.
- Farmers and handlers with gross organic revenue below $250,000 will choose whether or not to pay into the program.
- At least 25 percent of funds would be earmarked for research, including regional priorities.
- All of the research, inventions and innovations resulting from organic check-off programing would remain in the public domain.
A critical juncture for organic
Sales of organic food and non-food products in the U.S. are soaring. But consumer confusion about organic, inadequate funding for organic research and tight domestic organic supplies are major challenges for the sector. Organic stakeholders say the need to address these challenges has never been more urgent.
"As an industry we haven't done a great job explaining to shoppers what it means to be organic and the benefits of organic. As a result, consumers are still confused by the difference between certified organic, 'all natural' and non-GMO products," said Nicole Dawes, founder and CEO of Late July Organic Snacks.
"The need for more organic research, and a funding mechanism to finance it, is huge. Research of organic seed breeding is starving for funds, as is any long-term organic farming systems research," said Doug Crabtree, organic farmer from Montana.
Added Perry Clutts, organic dairy farmer from Ohio, "More farmers in America need to go organic. Our country, the biggest agricultural producer in the world, is having to import organic food to feed America's growing appetite."
After USDA completes its review of the application, an official proposal for an organic research and promotion check-off program will be published in the Federal Register, followed by a public comment period. The final step will be a referendum on the proposed check-off, with all certified organic stakeholders eligible to vote. Approval by a majority of the organic stakeholders voting is required for implementation.
A summary of the proposal and a copy of the full application can be found on the GROorganic.net site.