Update: On May 12, 2015, the Organic Trade Association moved forward to “begin steps to conduct a vote on and implement a research and promotion check-off program for the organic industry.”
Imagine an ad campaign for organic food as ubiquitous as “Got Milk?,” “Pork. The Other White Meat,” and “Beef: It’s What’s for Dinner.” That’s the idea behind a proposed federal program that would collect money from organic producers and put it in a single pot for promotion and industry research for the whole organics sector.
These famous campaigns were all bankrolled by commodity checkoff programs or “checkoffs.” The idea is that all the producers of say, beef, pay a percentage of what they earn, and those dollars go into a U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) program that shapes (and pays for) the research and promotion of beef in a general “it’s what’s for dinner” kind of way.
Organic producers have long had to pay into the general checkoff programs, even if advertising beef or milk generically felt counter to their business models, let alone their ethics. But that’s about to change. The newly passed 2014 Farm Bill allows for organic producers to opt out of conventional checkoffs and–here’s where it gets controversial–it also allows the organic industry to create its own checkoff program if there’s enough interest in doing so.
Would one unified fund representing all organic foods, essentially treating organics like a commodity, be a good thing? That depends entirely on who you ask.
Building the Industry
As Laura Batcha, Executive Director at the Organic Trade Association (OTA) sees it, an organic checkoff program could mean progress at a time when organic may be a household word, but the products still don’t have a significant toe-hold in the larger market.
“While the organic industry itself is growing at a consistent rate, the conversion of acreage hasn’t kept up with the market growth,” says Batcha. She points to the fact that while organics make up around 4 percent of what we eat, only 1 percent of U.S. farmland is farmed using organic practices.
“That has resulted in increasing supply challenges, which is something we hear about from everyone. There’s not enough livestock feed, or agricultural ingredients for products,” she adds. To make up the difference, we rely heavily on imports. Checkoff dollars, she says, could provide funding for research into organic practices and tools that could help a significant number of farmers transition their land away from conventional farming and toward organic practices.
According to Batcha, “about one third of shoppers have been buying organic for less than two years.” As she sees it, this steady stream of new folks entering the market needs to be educated about how organics stand apart from other products.
Indeed, a recent Consumer Reports study supports her point. It found that 60 percent of shoppers look for the term “natural.” Two-thirds of the same respondents said they believed “natural” food had no pesticides, or genetically modified organisms (GMOs)–a fact that some take to mean organic has been simultaneously misunderstood and downplayed in the marketplace for so long, it may be losing ground.
So the OTA has been “facilitating an industry decision” on the creation of the checkoff. They’ve also created a website called UnitedforMoreOrganic.com with more information for the public. Although the organization would turn the reins over to a newly appointed board of directors if and when a checkoff program is created, the organization, which boasts 6,500 certified organic farmers, handlers, manufacturers, distributors, and retailers among its membership, does stand to benefit from a growth in the industry.
A document called “Why a Research and Promotion Check-off Program?” on the OTA website cites ad campaigns such as “Got Milk?” and says a similar push would “require an investment of $10M annually in outreach spending” with a “goal of increasing consumer consumption of organic products by 5 percent per year ($500M per year increase based on $10B consumer level sales).”
Good For Farmers?
With so much money at stake, some food and farming advocates are questioning the value of an organic checkoff as the best way forward for the industry. For one, checkoffs have a bad reputation among most farmers, and particularly organic ones.