Like it or not, we are well into a new year and a new federal government. Despite the many changes and sometimes uncertain paths, I believe the organic community is poised for growth should it decide to adopt an organic check-off program.
USDA recently published the first draft of a proposal in the Federal Register. Then just after his inauguration, Donald Trump ordered a freeze on all pending regulations not yet in effect. The new administration will take pause and review all new regulations during the next 60 days. Since this program is self funded by the industry and will cost the federal government nothing, I believe it will move forward.
Despite the uncertainties and administrative foibles, it’s still important to weigh in today! If you’re a producer, retailer, manufacturer or consumer, it’s time to make your comments known.
Why does the organic industry need a check-off? Hasn’t it been growing double digits year over year, reaching a whopping $43.3 billion in sales last year?
The organic industry still suffers numerous growing pains. There remains widespread consumer confusion about the organic label. Shoppers can’t easily distinguish between the myriad of “good food” labels in the marketplace. Most don’t know that USDA provides rigorous certification, verification and oversight on compliance, and that no synthetic pesticides, herbicides or GMOs are allowed in organic production.
Despite this consumer confusion, organic supply hasn’t kept up with demand. We import more ingredients from overseas producers every year to fuel the exponential growth. The U.S. is the largest corn and soybean producer in the world, yet organic soybeans and corn are among the largest imported organic food products into the U.S.
Transition to organic production is difficult, fraught with economic perils and uncertain paths. It takes three full years of organic production to be certified as an organic farm. During those years a farmer gets paid conventional prices. Yields can be lower waiting for the soil to build up organic matter. High-cost methods such as manual labor or extra tillage to control weeds are employed.
There is a way to address these concerns. An organic check-off program would generate money that would:
- Educate consumers about what organic is and its benefits. Imagine a marketing slogan and well-funded promotional campaign such as “The Incredible Edible Organic,” or “Got Organic?”
- Distinguish organic from lesser claims and unregulated seals like "natural." Imagine television or full-page ads in in the NYT clearly spelling out that organic is certified, verified and qualified to be the gold standard of food.
- Confirm the science behind the environmental and public health benefits of organic. Federal dollars available for organic research often require matching funds from the industry. The organic check-off proposal assigns 25 percent of total pooled funding to match funds for research activities.
- Undertake research to solve problems such as invasive pests and weed control. Tackling unmet research needs, such as alternatives for weed control and agricultural inputs, could translate to everyday solutions for organic farmers and encourage others to transition to organic practices.
- Bring new farmers into organic production through information and technical assistance. The Natural Resources Conservation Service funds just one organic specialist in the entire United States! Why? Because the position requires a 50:50 match from the industry. A $1.5 million investment of matching funds could support 25 organic specialists nationwide.
- Reduce the supply crunch by transitioning farmland to organic production across the U.S. Imagine if organic check-off funds could be used to invest in young farmer education through grants, scholarships and supervised agricultural experiences.
The organic check-off could raise more than $30 million a year for promotional, educational and research activities. I firmly believe this could take organic to new heights for producers and consumers alike.
I support an agricultural production method that protects our soils, waters, our farmers and farm workers from toxic polluting inputs and enables everyone greater access to healthy organic food.
An organic check-off will carry organic agriculture soaring to new heights. If you believe growing organic is important, it’s time to make a comment on the USDA proposal. You can easily do so here.