Executive Interview: Q&A with Katherine DiMatteo, Executive Director, OTA

The organic sector has been growing at exponential rates over the past decade, with a wide variety of organic products becoming available in main stream supermarkets, organic flowers the hip new gift to send, and the most conventional of people buying organic milk. The organic industry successfully sought and crafted legislation to protect the integrity of ‘organic’, and more recently weathered a court decision and resulting controversy that may have ultimately derailed the industry’s huge success. Although she would deny it, the person many say is most responsible for guiding the organic sector through those rocky shoals is Katherine DiMatteo, the Organic Trade Association’s executive director since 1990.

The Organic Industry is experiencing some upheaval lately. What specifically is going on?

There is a difference of opinion about solutions to the Court decision handed down in January 2005 regarding the organic standards. OTA proposed amendments to OFPA (the law that authorized establishment of the National Organic Program) to affirm the current National Organic Program standards. The Court decision did not state that standards vetted by the NOSB process and public comment were the wrong standards, rather that the Organic Foods Production Act (OFPA) of 1990 did not clearly allow for a feed conversion period for dairies in transition to organic or the review and determination of allowed synthetics in post-harvest handling and processing. The amendments to OFPA do not change the list of allowed synthetic substances that are now permitted as ingredients or processing aids in foods labeled as organic and provide for conversion to organic dairy production. The amendments fully support the public comment process and authority of the National Organic Standards Board to recommend the materials on the National List of allowed synthetics and prohibited naturals.

Without these amendments there would have been great disruption for organic businesses and farmers that would result in the loss of markets, reduction of organic acres, and reduced choice for the organic consumer. Now, organic production can continue to provide environmental and public health benefits and help secure a sustainable future for everyone.

Are these growing pains or something more potentially harmful?

Whenever there is a new federal regulatory program, especially one as complex as the organic program, it is quite common to have a period of years where the kinks have to be worked out. All statutes have to be updated, and the organic business community has developed far beyond what Congress originally envisioned when the Organic Foods Production Act was passed in 1990.

The ‘fringe groups’ call to action has been contrary to the OTA position. What is their call exactly? How would you characterize the impact of these groups?

I can’t speak for any other group.

What are the three most important lessons you have learned since you began?

Environmental and societal change can occur with dedicated effort and patience.
The only thing that is constant is change.
Reasonable people will disagree and only those mature enough to realize this can do so respectfully.

What would you say are the three most important lessons industry should have learned?

In order to influence government, other businesses and public opinion the industry must stand together, participate in their associations, and not undermine the collective effort for individual gain.

Sound bites can come back and bite you.

Businesses should seek progress along the continuum to environmental and social sustainability and recognize organic production as only one set of practices in the continuum.

What was the organic business like in the early days of OFPANA - pre OTA? Ie How many members did you have and how did the business environment differ from today?

OFPANA was started by a handful of people from the US and Canada and by 1990 there was about 200 members. From the very beginning the membership represented the supply chain from farm through retailer. Certifiers and regional organic farming associations significantly influenced the positions and activities of OFPANA because they were the most active and numerous members at that time. There was not a unified organic community then, or now, so the concept of organizing to have a unified voice was a huge undertaking. Trade and business were considered necessary evils. Organic product sales, both fresh and processed, were largely through independent stores, usually co-ops and natural food stores, and direct to the customer at farmers markets and farm stands. At that time many products sold as organic were not certified and likely were not even produced or processed organically. “No pesticides” was the description of organic products, customers of organic were described as a “crunchy, granola” person and the interest in organic products was considered a fad.

What has OTA done to help industry grow in the US? Looking back to when you began, are you on track with your vision? How has your vision evolved?

The OTA established the fact that there is an organic industry and provided its voice. OTA was instrumental in shaping the standards that became the National Organic Program through compromise and consensus-building within the membership and with the public interest and environmental organizations. OTA created interest and awareness of organic production, organic products and organic standards through tireless communication with the media, other trade and business organizations and the public. OTA has gained recognition and developed important relationships with government agencies and elected officials in order to advance organic agriculture. OTA has provided business networking and sales opportunities to expand the organic market.

The goal of OTA was to encourage global sustainability through promoting and protecting the growth of diverse organic trade. We’re well on our way to achieving these goals and for the future OTA envisions organic products becoming a significant part of everyday life, enhancing people's lives and the environment.

Where do you think OTA, and the organic industry will be in 10 years?

The organic industry can be expected to continue to grow and thrive at a sturdy rate over the next 20 years, but at a slower pace than the current 20 percent average annual growth in sales. By 2025, 14 percent of the average U.S. household's budget will be devoted to purchasing organic products. The average consumer household in 2025 will buy organic products on a regular basis. These will include food items as well as organic clothing, household cleaning products, and personal care items. Sales of organic fiber and textiles will continue to grow and will make up six to seven percent of all U.S. clothing by the year 2025. Organic products by 2025 will be sold anywhere and everywhere. Increased sales in restaurants can be expected. Increases in organic sales and acceptance will result in increased U.S. organic acreage. Younger shoppers will continue to be interested in organic foods, particularly as Gen Xers pass down their belief systems. Ethnic shoppers, including Asian Americans and Hispanic Americans, will continue to be more likely to buy organic products in proportion to their representation in the general population.

OTA will still be going strong, representing 2,500 businesses involved in organic production and trade. OTA will lead the development of legislation and regulation that will benefit its members and increase the acres under organic production. OTA will continue to create or partner with programs that increase customer demand for organic products. OTA will be considered the primary source of information and resources about the organic industry and organic production.

What have been the most significant challenges to growing the organic industry? To growing OTA? Challenges from Government specifically? What did you do to overcome those? Where will the next challenge come from?

Government support of organic agriculture will be crucial to maintain the industry's growth potential. The U.S. government will need to support farmers in their transition to organic production, and to enforce the standards to minimize consumer confusion. Starting with the 2007 Farm Bill, OTA will be pressing for greater recognition and inclusion of organic agriculture in the policy framework for agriculture in the U.S.

Consolidation and mergers are one of the challenges to growing OTA’s membership but if the projected growth for the organic industry is realized there will be new businesses entering the industry and more businesses along the supply chain that are currently under-represented in OTA’s membership. Also, an expansion of OTA membership internationally will be considered.

With those who philosophically oppose organic production; those who see the organic industry success as a threat; those who want to use the success of the organic industry to push additional social and anti-corporate agendas; and those who deliberately misinform the public about organic products, it is difficult to predict where the next challenge will come from—only that it will come.

As the organic industry matures what do you see as the biggest threats or challenges (or opportunities) that the industry MUST address to prosper? How does the industry best tackle them?

The greatest opportunity and challenge for the organic industry is to ensure that customers understand what the organic label guarantees and why purchasing organic is smart. With the expansion of label claims in the market it is crucial to distinguish the organic label through awareness campaigns and compelling messages. The work of The Organic Center on proven research that highlights the public health benefits of organic food and production methods will help shape the messages to be delivered broadly through OTA, other organizations and the industry. The future may even bring sufficient funds to launch the long-wished-for national generic organic marketing campaign.

After 15 years spearheading OTA you are leaving in the spring. What are your plans now?

I don’t have any specific plans at this time.

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