Is a check-off the right recipe for organic?

Melody Meyer, Vice President of Policy and Industry Relations

April 27, 2016

5 Min Read
Is a check-off the right recipe for organic?

Organic food and fiber in the U.S. are growing despite themselves. Even last week Miles McEvoy, deputy administrator of the National Organic Program, touted the double-digit growth of certified operations in the U.S. which are now 21,000, with 31,000 around the world. While this $40-plus billion industry is indeed exploding on the shelves in U.S. supermarkets, only 1 percent of agriculture in the U.S. is dedicated to growing organic. This ravenous appetite for organic food and fiber is percolating into a frothy peak, yet we just aren’t producing what we need to feed the growing hunger. The fact that Costco is buying land and equipment, partnering with organic growers to meet demand is commendable—but it’s not going to quench the bigger dilemma.

A spark is needed in agriculture, and the organic check-off may be the ingredient that serves up the juiciest future. 

Right now in U.S. agriculture, it pays to do the wrong thing. Our tax dollars get funneled into farm subsidies that support the largest polluters, the biggest pesticides sprayers, the numerous nitrate- fertilizer applicators and the bevy of GMO seeds propagators. Through this unholy arrangement, billionaires and tycoons are receiving farm subsidies from the federal government. Imagine if there was a reserve of funds specifically for organic farmers, farms and companies.

A recipe for success could be an idea whose time has finally come.

The idea of an organic check-off program has been toyed with and re-imagined for decades. Check-off programs traditionally get paid solely by farmers and help support a single growing industry sector—you know their jingle … “Got Milk” and the “Incredible Edible Egg.” This organic check-off, appropriately deemed GroOrganic, is quite different. It’s not our mothers’ check-off because it is unique and unprecedented in the way it represents all organic items on your plate—from fruit to bread to meat. Everyone pays a little, and everyone benefits a lot, and that’s just the icing on the cake!

Let’s imagine the benefits that GroOrganic could provide:

An organic check-off could raise over $30 million a year for promotional, educational and research activities, which over time would be a game changer for the organic sector. With a well-organized properly planned and carefully monitored program it would help the industry to:

Educate consumers about what organic is and its benefits.

I can see the front page ad in The New York Times explaining that organic is grown without toxic pesticides, synthetic fertilizers and GMOs. Imagine the smile on mothers’ faces when they realize there is a federal agency dedicated to enforcing the organic standards. I can feel the delightful surprise when a network television commercial describes the environmental benefits of organic methods. I could easily chow down on media like this!

Distinguish organic from lesser claims and unregulated seals like natural.

The mystique of the natural label is strong. Consumers gravitate towards it sometimes believing it’s pure, free of chemicals and bereft of GMO ingredients. You only have to look at the OTA survey U.S. Families’ Organic Attitudes and Beliefs Study to grasp the level of confusion. More than 3,400 parents responded to the survey, and they were all knowledgeable and familiar with organic foods. Almost all of the respondents had purchased organic or natural products in the past six months, yet 70 percent thought that natural products are “grown without the use of toxic pesticides or fertilizers and produced without the use of genetically modified organisms.” With an organic check-off, confusion between natural and the myriad other labels will be dispelled. I can smell the sweet aroma of these misconceptions slow cooking into a cassoulet of clarity.

Confirm the science behind the environmental and public health benefits of organic.

Let’s celebrate the organic milk study that shows organic milk has more beneficial fatty acids. Let’s communicate the stories about farm workers enjoying a safer work environment on organic farms with less exposure to cancer-causing chemicals. Let’s acclaim the studies that display less pesticide residues in our children, the research that proves organic soil sequesters more carbon in a chaotic climate. The proof is in the pudding.

Undertake research to solve problems such as invasive pests and weed control.

Did you know the USDA requires matching funds for research to go towards a specific project? Conventional agriculture is united and organized; they have multiple check-off programs to fund science and research usually at odds with organic production. Organic has no matching dollars in an organized fashion … Yes, there are a few noble and reliable companies who have over the years loyally funded organic science.  Imagine a skewer of organic research grants that drives right down the heart of pests and diseases, like citrus greening disease—a pestilence devastating citrus groves. Consider the dollars that could go to breed traditional open source organic seeds. The fruit of this research would be tasty indeed!

Bring new farmers into organic production through information and technical assistance.

GroOrganic can be the missing ingredient in the casserole for creating more organic farmers and acreage in North America. There will be monies for education and technical assistance. At the moment, NRCS funds ONE organic specialist in the entire U.S. This position requires a 50:50 match from industry. With $1.5 million a year in matching funds, we could create 25 organic specialists around the country. It would leave additional funds to foster and educate all organic farmers. Let’s put some money where our mouth is!

Only when organic has risen to 20 percent of agriculture in the U.S. will my organic hunger be satiated. Until that time, organic farmers deserve a shot of success and consumers a twist of truth. By feeding both ends—the demand and the supply—we will change the face and taste of agriculture. If you believe in this recipe, please join me in signing on to support this important process now!

If you’ve got a better recipe to share, I’m all ears, until then let’s have a taste of this one. I think it’s going to be delicious.

About the Author(s)

Melody Meyer

Vice President of Policy and Industry Relations, United Natural Foods Inc.

Melody Meyer is the vice president of policy and industry relations for United Natural Foods (UNFI). She is responsible for communicating and educating all stakeholders on critical industry issues and is active in advocating for fair and equitable funding for organic agriculture.

Melody’s career spans several decades in the organic and natural foods industry, including nine years of international trade and development. She began her career in 1976 working in an Iowa Natural Food Cooperative. Her early years in the retail segment of the burgeoning organic industry provided valuable experience buying from local farmers and providing fair returns in order to increase their organic acreage. This experience led to a lifelong dream of changing the way people eat and farm.

Melody founded her own business in 1995, Source Organic, which joined organic producers all over the country directly with national retailers and wholesalers. Source Organic was eventually acquired by Albert’s Organics (a division of United Natural Foods UNFI) in 2001 and it became the procurement department for all organic fresh produce purchased for the company. Her dream was being realized on a national scale!

In 2004 she began importing directly from small banana producers in Latin America. They were uniting and developing self-governed organizations enabling the small producers to export internationally for the first time. This international business provided a new level of prosperity, allowing the communities to increase much-needed social systems and infrastructure.

She has been deeply involved in introducing fair trade certification to growers in Latin America with Fair Trade USA and FLO.  The fair trade premiums are managed by self-governed worker groups to provide education, reforestation, access to clean water and health care.

Melody is proud to be the current executive director of the UNFI Foundation, which is dedicated to funding nonprofit organizations that promote organic and sustainable agriculture and healthy food systems. Priorities of the foundation include organic research, protecting biodiversity of seeds, promoting transparent labeling and educating consumers on healthy food choices.

She is serving her second term on the Board of Directors for the Organic Trade Association (OTA).  She also sits on the California Department of Food and Agriculture Organic Products Advisory Committee (COPAC).

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