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Why the time is right for a national organic check-off

Funds from a check-off could help the organic sector strengthen its voice, quell consumer confusion and address supply shortages.

Gary Hirshberg

February 27, 2015

4 Min Read
Why the time is right for a national organic check-off

The organic sector is at a critical juncture. The demand for organic is soaring. Sales of organic food and non-food products are expected to have broken a new record of nearly $40 billion in 2014. More than 80 percent of families in the U.S. now buy organic products.

But consumer surveys increasingly underscore what many of us already know – consumers are more and more confused about unregulated claims on food throughout grocery stores, crediting many labels with the attributes that only come from buying organic. Consumers think that foods labeled non-GMO are organic, that “natural” foods do not contain artificial ingredients, that “locally grown” always means grown without pesticides. We organic businesses simply can’t afford this confusion!

As a result, America’s certified organic stakeholders – farmers, ranchers, distributors and food makers – are now deliberating the most potentially transformative step for the organic industry since the first discussions over 20 years ago to develop national guidelines and regulations for the then-fledgling sector - whether to adopt a national organic check-off program.

I believe that the time is right for a research and promotion check-off program that is designed specifically for the organic sector. There are two reasons for this.

Confusion and tight supplies

Consumer confusion: There’s no doubt that we need a large, loud and coordinated promotion plan to clear up the current consumer misunderstanding. We simply need to do a better job of educating what it means to be organic and why, if you are concerned about eliminating unnecessary toxins in our food supply, organic is the only choice. (Get the latest update on the fight to label GMOs at the session at Expo West on Saturday, March 7 in which I’ll be participating.)

Supply shortages: The number one crisis facing the organic sector now and for the future is supply shortages. We need more farmers in America to go organic. Otherwise, organic food companies will continue to face shortages of organic ingredients every year because domestic organic production just can’t keep up with the robust demand for organic.

An organic check-off would enable the entire sector to benefit from promotion and research programs that provide consumer education, on-farm and regional research solutions, and ultimately, increase the number of organic farmers. It would be a game changer for organic, for our children and our planet.

Everyone pays, everyone benefits

An organic check-off would be unprecedented. It would not promote a specific commodity, but instead a specific agricultural production process -- a process that adheres to stringent federal requirements to grow food without the use of toxic and persistent pesticides and GMOs, raise animals without antibiotics and synthetic hormones, and process food without preservatives and artificial colors.

But who would pay for this? The organic check-off proposal would be an industry-wide opportunity for all organic stakeholders to join together. We’d all share in building a “broad and shallow” approach whereby all organic certificate holders in the supply chain with gross annual sales above $250,000 would contribute to a collective fund. The proposed assessment calls for one-tenth of 1 percent. So, for example, there would be a maximum $1,000 assessment for every $1 million in gross organic revenue.

The proposal also creates an exemption for small farmers and businesses that make less than $250,000 per year. Exempt operations could voluntarily choose to contribute a flat fee of $100 per year to contribute to the collective fund and have a say in how the money is spent. Businesses that already participate in another federal check-off would get to choose where to direct their assessment.

It’s estimated an organic check-off program could raise up to $40 million per year! This would allow for more money to be spent on promotion, research and consumer education: promoting the benefits of organic and explaining why organic can sometimes cost more and why it is worth more, research that would translate into everyday solutions for organic farmers and encourage others to transition to organic practices.

An organic check-off program would strengthen the voice of the organic sector and allow us to get our message to the American consumer in a clear, transparent way.

The vision is still clear

The organic sector was founded by visionaries who believed in a better, more healthy and sustainable way to raise our food and to be the stewards of our precious land. The vision is still clear and we work everyday to accomplish it.

An organic check-off can make this vision a reality. This can be the moment we give organic a beautiful future!

Is a check-off the right next step for the organic sector?

About the Author(s)

Gary Hirshberg

Chairman, Stonyfield Farm & Just Label It

Gary Hirshberg is the husband of writer Meg Hirshberg and the father of three yogurt eaters. He is chairman of Stonyfield Farm, the world’s leading organic yogurt producer, and the author of Stirring It Up: How to Make Money and Save the World (Hyperion, 2008). Gary frequently speaks on topics including sustainability, organic agriculture and the profitability of green business.

Gary has overseen Stonyfield’s growth, from its 1983 infancy as a seven-cow organic farming school to its current $360 million in annual sales. Stonyfield has enjoyed a compounded annual growth rate of over 23 percent over 21 years, by consistently producing superior products and using innovative marketing that blends the company’s social, environmental, and financial missions. Stonyfield partnered with Danone in 2001, and Gary is now managing director of Stonyfield Europe, with organic brands in Ireland, and France.

Gary serves on several corporate and non-profit boards including Applegate Farms, Honest Tea, Peak Organic Brewing, Late July, The Full Yield, SweetGreen, RAMp Sports, Glenisk, the Danone Communities Fund and the Danone Livelihoods Fund. He is the chairman, CEO and co-founder of Chelsea’s Table Cafés, a natural and organic fast casual restaurant firm. In 2011, President Obama appointed Gary to serve on the Advisory Committee for Trade Policy and Negotiations. He is a co-chair of AGree, an agricultural policy initiative formed by the Ford, Gates, Kellogg, Rockefeller, Walton and other leading foundations.

He is chairman and a founding partner of Just Label It, We Have the Right to Know, the national campaign to label genetically engineered foods and is co-author of Label It Now – What You Need to Know About Genetically Engineered Foods (New Word City, 2012). All proceeds from the e-book benefit Just Label It.

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