USDA calls for comment on organic check-off proposal as demand for organic outstrips supply

By Elizabeth Crawford contact

- Last updated on GMT

USDA calls for comment on organic check-off proposal

Related tags: Organic food

The US Department of Agriculture’s call today for public comment on the Organic Trade Association’s application to create an organic check-off program comes at a time when sales of organic products in the US are soaring but hampered by limited domestic supply.

“The popularity of organic products has never been higher,”​ according to the trade association which estimates organic product sales reached $43.3 billion in 2015, “up a robust 11% from the previous year’s record level and far outstripping the overall food market’s growth rate of 3%.”

But, OTA says, “tight domestic organic supplies, inadequate funding for organic research and consumer confusion about organic are major challenges for the sector.”

According to the trade association, the solution to these hurdles is to create the Generic Research and Promotion Order for Organic – or GRO Organic – check-off program. Now, a year and a half after officially applying to USDA to create the program and more than five years after OTA first began working with stakeholders to shape the program, USDA is seeking public comment – a pivotal next step in making it a reality.

“The public comment period is an important opportunity for the organic industry to provide more feedback and to further improve the program,”​ Laura Batcha, CEO and executive director of OTA, said in a written statement.

She indicated the program has wide industry support, noting that “nearly 1,400 organic stakeholders publically support the GRO Organic check-off, with 75% of those organic certificate holders being farmers and ranchers.”​ In addition, she said, nearly twice as many certified operators who responded to OTA requests for comment on the program support creating an organic check-off program compared to those who oppose it.

Those in favor of the program hope that the estimated $30 million a year it could raise will help the organic industry reach its full potential by funding much-needed research, providing technical services to encourage more farmers to join the fold and level the commercial playing field by clarifying for consumers the full value of organic as well as generally supporting the organic brand.

Growing the organic farming community

Considering the difference between the current supply and demand for organic products, Melody Meyer, VP CSR, policy and industry relations for UNFI, said in a statement that GRO Organic is needed “plain and simple … to recruit young people and train existing farmers.”

She noted, “We must provide technical assistance to help farmers transition land into certification.”

Organic dairy farmer Perry Clutts, agreed the funds should go towards certifying more organic producers. “Not only are beginning farmers potential certified farmers, but traditional farmers are another source of potential certified organic farmers of the future. We need to help ourselves do a better job of promoting what we do, and how farmers can benefit from being an organic farmer,”​ he said.

Research funds are a lynchpin for long-term growth

In addition to providing technical assistance and training to bring in more farmers, Ken Cook, president and co-founder of the Environmental Working Group said in a statement that he hoped the program “would also be able to fill in the research gaps left every year by limited federal research dollars that all too often skew toward outdated and damaging industrial farming practices.”

Specifically, organic needs more research dollars to find solutions to control pests and weeds, said Donna Miller, owner of D&G Blueberry Farms in western Florida. “The number one issue for me and for most organic farmers is weed control. … Weed control is the biggest beast and what I spend the most money on,”​ she said, adding that current organic weed control research “is just not there.”

Two researchers from the Organic Ag Program at Iowa State University and the Science Programs at The Organic Center also confirmed in materials provided by OTA that research funding through the organic check-off program would be “critical for the continued success of organic farming.”

Consumer education could level playing field

Finally, stakeholders argued that the many value propositions embodied in organic certification far exceed those of many marketing claims currently used that appear to resonate more with consumers, such as non-GMO and natural.

“We know first-hand how confused consumers are about organic in the broad sense. Is natural better, is GMO-free as good as organic?To have a program from a high level that educates on the benefits of organic is critical,”​ Jesse Laflamme, co-owner of Pete & Gerry’s Organic Eggs, says in a statement.

A key message of that education campaign should be that organic is non-GMO, Gage Mitchell, principle and creative director of Modern Species, indicated in a statement. In a rallying cry for action, Mitchell added, “If you’re tired of consumers being confused about whether they should buy the organic product or the Non-GMO Verified option, then you need to support this GRO Organic program because it would give Organic a unified voice to promote the fact that Organic IS Non-GMO (among other things). Let’s end the confusion and grow organic!”

What’s next

Stakeholders have until March 20 to submit comments to USDA that either support the program or outline why it should be tweaked or not go forward. After the department reviews the comments, certified organic stakeholders that would pay into the program would vote on a referendum on the proposed check-off. A majority approval is necessary for implementation.

“A ‘yes’ vote starts the grand experiment for the organic sector that has been long in the making, and that could create positive and long lasting changes for all of us,”​ Batcha added. 

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