Why did the organic checkoff die an untimely death?

Even those who helped craft the program were taken aback by the USDA's decision to stop the organic checkoff rulemaking process last week.

Melody Meyer, Vice President of Policy and Industry Relations

May 17, 2018

5 Min Read
Why did the organic checkoff die an untimely death?

Back in 2010, I was on the board of The Organic Trade Association. At the time, we had a brilliant idea on how to grow organic agriculture. An organic research and promotion program, or checkoff, would have provided an estimated $30 million annually for the organic community.

Money would have been collected through a USDA checkoff program we aptly named GroOrganic. It would have provided money for organic research, technical assistance for new organic farmers and educating consumers on the meaning of organic.

On May 11, the USDA unexpectedly announced its intention to terminate the rulemaking process that would have established this program. This was a highly aggressive move with no forewarning to any of the parties involved.

The USDA made the termination official on May 15 and said that it was, “based on uncertain industry support and outstanding substantive issues with the proposed program.” This took place exactly three years from the date of the original proposal put forward by the OTA—May 15, 2015.

This was three years of hard work gathering input from the organic community on how the checkoff should assess the funds and spend the money. The proposed program could have created a national campaign that would educate consumers on the meaning of organic and distinguish it from other claims and labels. It would have provided millions of matching funds every year for science and research to aid organic farmers.

Most importantly, it would have provided technical assistance to help transition and increase organic acreage in the U.S.

After years of community input and fine-tuning, the proposal was finally published in the federal register in January 2018.

Over 15,000 comments were received, and USDA’s notice said, “The comments revealed that there is a split within the industry in terms of support for the proposed program. While some comments voiced support for a collective industry program, other comments stated that industry was not aligned in backing the proposal.”

Laura Batcha, CEO and executive director of OTA, pushed back in OTA’s press release: “USDA’s assertion that there is 'uncertain industry support for and outstanding substantive issues with the proposed program' is simply wrong. The OTA is certain about the quality of the proposal and the outcome of the initial public comment period. We submitted comments with 1,358 public endorsers named, including over 1,230 certified organic operators. These organic farmers, ranchers and business stakeholders were joined by over 11,000 supporters who commented directly on the proposal.”

Yes, opponents raised concerns about the proposed program, including how the minimal level would eliminate a majority of organic farmers from the program.

The USDA questioned whether organic promotion is possible without being disparaging to other agricultural commodities. They cited the following: voting methodology, financial burden on small entities to comply and the challenges of tracing imported organic products.

The USDA also indicated that, “Both those in support of, and those in opposition to the proposed program requested changes to the method of assessment for imports and a reduction in the paperwork burden on covered entities.”

Despite all the concerns, the logical next steps should have been the publication of a final proposal from USDA followed by a vote on the proposed program by the entire organic sector.

Batcha weighed in that, “It is unfathomable that organic stakeholders will not be given the chance to cast their vote, and to decide for themselves if they want to implement an organic checkoff. USDA unilaterally making the decision on behalf of the 26,000+ certified organic growers, ranchers, processors, handlers and business owners to not advance the process is stunning.”

The impact on research funding was evident to Marty Mesh, executive director of Florida Organic Growers. "It’s pathetic that at a time when farmers need more research to help them succeed, a vehicle that would have generated millions of dollars was never even allowed to come to a vote," he said. "We are leaving matching dollars behind that would have helped them solve many challenges.”

Between the withdrawals of the animal welfare standards, attacks on the role of the NOSB and now the termination of the organic checkoff, it feels like organic is under full assault by the current USDA.

Michael Sligh from the Rural Advancement Foundation International commented on the USDA notice: “I would describe my reaction as relieved, especially given the current multiple challenges our community is already facing—import fraud, Farm Bill attacks on OFPA and certification cost-share, proposed GE labeling regulations, withdrawal of OLPP and add-on labels. This is certainly enough for our community to manage at the moment.

I am also sorry for the huge amount of energies and resources expended on all of sides of that debate. However, two points are worth noting. With all of the above attacks, we as an organic community are more united than we have been for some time, and the open question is what can we as a community learn from the checkoff experience that can guide us in the future?”

In the 2014 Farm Bill, Congress paved the way for an organic checkoff to be possible. The actions of the USDA today usurp the efforts of the organic community to raise our own funds to grow organic acres in the U.S. We didn’t even get the chance to weigh in as a community on this well-vetted proposal.

Although I no longer sit on the board, the OTA intends to move forward to fully assess opportunities through the private sector to advance innovative solutions that will have important and long-lasting benefits for organic farmers, businesses and consumers alike.

As the OTA press release says, “We face the reality, once again, that government is not willing to keep pace.”

There will likely be no Lazarus raising the organic checkoff from this untimely death anytime soon.

Melody Meyer is the vice president of policy and industry relations for United Natural Foods Inc. This post originally appeared on her blog, Organic Matters, and was republished with permission.

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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