USDA's Proposed Organic Program Would Unfairly Promote Large Organic Industry Over Small Organic Farmers


The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) opened a 60-public comment period January 17 on a controversial proposal to establish a federal research and promotion check-off program that has split the organic community, with many family farmers and small farm operators disagreeing with the larger organic industry groups, represented by the Organic Trade Association (OTA), on the benefits that they will derive from a mandatory payment requirement.

The application to USDA for a check-off, originally submitted by OTA in 2015, has drawn sharp division on questions of benefits and cost to farmers. OTA believes that the check-off will generate resources to lift the organic market. This program is different from traditional check-off programs, which promote individual commodities. USDA oversees check-off programs under the Commodity, Promotion, Research and Information Act of 1996.

According to OTA, the check-off creates an industry-funded promotion, research, and information program for certified organic products, whose overarching goal is to strengthen the position of certified organic products in the marketplace. OTA says this would be achieved by funding research to benefit the organic industry, improving access to information and data across the organic sector, and educating consumers about the benefits of organic, resulting in increased demand for organic products. Under the proposal, funds will be collected from certified organic farmers, handlers, and processors. The program will be led by a board of the same makeup from different geographic regions.

The concerns of opponents, which include a diverse mix of farm and consumer organizations, are represented by the group No Organic Check-Off. The group identifies six problems with the proposed check-off system:

  1. This will be just another tax on farmers either directly or indirectly when processors pass the cost down.
  2. Want to promote the benefits of organic? You can’t in a check-off. Even something as simple and accurate as “Organic is the Gold Standard,” will not be allowed by USDA.
  3. The Check-off system is fundamentally broken for farmers – the federally mandated check-off programs have restrictive guidelines, heavy bureaucracy, lack of accountability and cost of administration.
  4. Check-off programs have a history of using check-off funds inappropriately, with poor representation of farmer priorities in granting of research dollars.
  5. Commodity check-off programs that are successful see a decline of family farmers in business.
  6. Promoting organic sales now will not increase organic acreage in the US but will increase lower priced organic imports.

The proposal will be open for public comment until March 20, 2017. Submit a comment here.

According to the National Agriculture Law Center, checkoff programs “promote and provide research and information for a particular agricultural commodity without reference to specific producers or brands.” They are referred to as “check-off programs” because at their inception they were not mandatory and producers had to mark a check-off box to indicate that they wanted to contribute to the program. Some of the most prominent campaigns to come from these check-off programs include “Got Milk?” “Beef, It’s What’s For Dinner,” and “Behold, The Power of Cheese.”

USDA’s current rules exempt organic producers from participation in conventional check-off programs, since those promotional campaigns make no distinction concerning the quality of the product, health benefits, or methods of production that set organically produced products apart from competitors. USDA says, “Should this proposed rule become final, pursuant to section 10004 of the 2014 Farm Bill, the regulatory language currently exempting organic commodities from assessment by generic commodity promotion programs created under the various commodity promotion laws (7 U.S.C. 7401(e)) shall no longer be in effect.

Such commodities would then become “dual-covered commodities”, and persons producing, handling and importing them would need to elect to pay assessments to the commodity-specific program, or the organic commodity promotion program.”

The proposed program will be funded by organic certified producers and handlers whose annual gross sales are in excess of $250,000 paying one-tenth of one percent of net organic sales, with importers paying the same percentage on the transaction value of their certified organic products reported to U.S. Customs and Border Protection upon import. Producers, handlers, and importers that fall below the $250,000 threshold could voluntarily choose to opt in to the program.

The program would also:

  • Carry out the bi-partisan directive to expand and make consistent exemptions from commodity promotion programs for all certified-organic producers. Currently only “100% certified organic” producers qualify.
  • Enable support of grassroots organic research and marketing.
  • Allocate at least 25 percent of the funding specifically for local and regional research.

Critics say that USDA could do more to make the paperwork requirements easier for small organic producers, who should only have to register their exemption once, not annually. The program, called the Generic Research and Promotion Order for Organic, would be run by a 17 member board of directors, independent of OTA. The board would be charged with pursuing educational initiatives and promotional campaigns to help boost demand for organic products by increasing consumer awareness of the benefits of organic food, which OTA believes will benefit everyone in the organic supply chain.

OTA maintains that as the demand for organic increases, due to the check-off program, more farmers will be willing to make the switch to organic, which will be crucial to match organic demand in the U.S. Consumer demand for organic in the U.S. already outpaces production. The group, No Organic Check-Off, on the other hand, says that without a plan to support increased acreage moving into organic production, consumers will see more imported organic food in the marketplace.

Critics also say that check-off programs are plagued by a history of mismanagement and abuse. With so many players, there is also worry that the needs of processors and handlers could overshadow those of farmers, who John Bobbe, executive director of the Organic Famer’s Agency for Relationship Marketing (OFARM), says traditionally only receive a small portion of the profit from the ever growing $40 billion organic market.

Others wonder about the efficiency of marketing as a way of growing food instead of a specific commodity. “You can be more flexible with your messaging and even more efficient with the dollars if you’re not tied to the government,” said Harriet Behar, senior organic specialist with the Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Service (MOSES).

To address the issue of meeting consumer demand for organic, OTA and USDA announced last week the National Certified Transitional Program, as a partnership. This program will provide “Certification and oversight to producers who are in transition to organic” and will include OTA working with certifiers, manufacturers, and retailers to create a “transitional” label on packaged products.

Beyond Pesticides has long promoted the importance of organic in a sustainable food system, and works to promote the widespread transition of conventional farmland to organic production. Organic law requires farmers adopt an organic systems plan to support soil biology, ecological balance, and pest prevention. Beyond Pesticides provides many opportunities to get involved inprotecting and advancing the integrity of the organic label, and encourages public action to ensure organic’s strong standards remain intact. To find out more about the work Beyond Pesticides is doing on organic integrity, check out Keeping Organic Strong, or to see all the reasons to go organic, visit Eating with a Conscience.

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