Organic Trade Association's new CEO on the future of organics

The Organic Trade Association's new CEO talks about the organization's top priorities and factors driving the natural and organic market now. 

In the midst of the frenzy kicked up by Cheerios’ GMO-free announcement, the organic world has been buzzing with its own important news after the Organic Trade Association named longtime industry veteran Laura Batcha to become the association’s CEO and executive director.

Batcha will take the helm of the North American organization at a time when the organic sector is beginning to regain stronger annual growth numbers while continuing to face challenges in promoting, clarifying and differentiating the attributes of the organic seal in relation to the non-GMO, local and natural categories.

Batcha has had her hands in the organic industry for more than 20 years, beginning in 1989 when she worked on an organic farm in Santa Cruz, Calif. Later on, she started her own herbal business and held several leadership positions at Tom’s of Maine before joining the Organic Trade Association six years ago. She began as the association's marketing and public relations director and climbed the ranks to become executive vice president before her most recent promotion. 

Batcha said one of the association's top priorities will be continuing to support the National Organic Program and its oversight of the organic seal. That work has recently included pushing for a provision in the upcoming Farm Bill to provide one-time financial assistance to the National Organic Program to update its technology systems.

Marketing the organic message

On a broader market-level view, the OTA's industry analysis describes a continued challenge in overcoming consumer confusion over the different benefits of organic food versus natural, non-GMO and local alternatives. Many consumers don't understand that the organic certification prohibits the use of GMOs, for example, the report said.

It's a challenge the OTA is taking on through education and promotional efforts that include advocating for policies that protect the rights of organic producers and handlers to make claims around, for example, the non-GMO guarantee that organics offer. There’s also movement to form an organic checkoff program, a quasi-government structure that allows the industry to self-pool money to fund education, promotion and research to support the industry á la the Got Milk? campaign.

“It’s a way for the industry to really have a big enough megaphone to communicate that message to the public consistently,” Batcha said. “At any given time, 30 percent of shoppers choosing organic have only been buying organic for less than two years, so our burden for education won’t go away.”

On mounting energy behind national or state-driven GMO labeling efforts, Batcha acknowledged they have the potential to increase competition with the green organic seal. But they also have spurred consumer desire to make more informed choices about their food which is a positive. It’s the job of organics to educate consumers about the additional benefits the organic label brings to the table, she said. 

“What we have to do as an organic industry is make sure the consumer understands that it’s not apples to apples. The organic field offers more,” she said.

Taking organic to the masses

The increase in shelf space devoted to organic products at mass-market retailers and the growth in private label organic products are both trends Batcha said will likely continue. Eight of twelve private label categories tracked in 2012 experienced double-digit growth that year, according to the OTA's 2013 industry survey. A combination of trust, convenience and price has driven consumers to choose those brands, the report said.

On the international stage, mass-market retailers like Costco are becoming key players in bringing U.S. produce to other countries, Batcha said.

“As long as the trend for the consumer is more organic products, which it will continue to be, more outlets are going to be interested in attracting those shoppers to their stores,” she said.  

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