Got Organic? USDA Moves Closer to Organic Industry Checkoff Program

USDA Moves Closer to Organic Industry Checkoff Program
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The USDA has announced plans to promote organic foods through a new national checkoff program, the Generic Research and Promotion Order for Organic (or GRO Organic), that could bring even more growth to the booming organic sector.

The program would combine resources from organic farmers, handlers, and processors to promote the benefits of supporting the USDA organic label. Despite the industry’s continued growth, organic farming makes up less than five percent of all U.S. agriculture, and demand is now exceeding supply for some items.

According to the Organic Trade Association (OTA), the GRO Organic program could spend more than $30 million annually to promote organics, an “industry self-investment,” says OTA’s CEO and executive director, Laura Batcha.

“We’re really pleased the USDA is moving forward with this well vetted proposal,” Batcha said in a statement.

Checkoff programs are common for commodity foods such as beef, pork, eggs, and milk. If you’ve ever seen a “Got Milk?” campaign or “Beef: It’s What’s for Dinner,” you’ve seen the long-lasting benefit of a checkoff program.

But this would be the first checkoff program of its kind to touch on an industry growing or raising practice rather than a specific food category. And it’s coming not a moment too soon, says Civil Eats.

“Despite the growing market, the complicated and costly process of becoming a certified organic grower keeps many farmers from attempting the transition,” writes Sarah Shemkus. “At the same time, labels like ‘natural’ and ‘non-GMO’ are sowing confusion with consumers about the true meaning and value of the organic designation.”

Under the proposed program, confusion over the benefits of organic food and farming would be addressed through educational campaign efforts. Large organic producers with sales of more than $250,000 annually would be expected to contribute (unless involved with another checkoff program and opt to stay focused on that one). A 17-person run board made up of organic farmers and handlers will manage the program.

“The entire value chain is inextricably linked,” Batcha said. “Acknowledging that, the program is built so that everybody participates.”

Already the program has earned support from leaders in the organic space including Organic Valley and Stonyfield Farm. More are expected to show their support.

The benefit of the program is that awareness and support of organics could mean prices for organic foods decrease—price is often a deterrent for shoppers when choosing between a higher-priced organic product and a less expensive conventional option.

But the program would also yield another necessary benefit: it would help fund research into better farming technology and pest control needs. One-quarter of all funds in the GRO Organic program would be routed to local and regional-based research.

The program has earned its share of criticism as well, “The concern we have is checkoffs have not done what they are designed to do,” John Bobbe, executive director of the Organic Farmers’ Agency for Relationship Marketing, told Civil Eats.

Bobbe pointed to the American Egg Board’s recent scandal involving efforts to disrupt sales of Hampton Creek’s eggless Just Mayo. Emails linked to the board’s CEO led to her eventual resignation over the issue.

But with the program offering the promise of more access and lower prices, it’s like to move forward.

“Over time, real prices should fall,” said Ken Cook, president of the Environmental Working Group, “That’s a positive thing for consumers.”

USDA is accepting public comments on the program for the next 60 days.

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Jill Ettinger

Jill Ettinger is a Los Angeles-based journalist and editor focused on the global food system and how it intersects with our cultural traditions, diet preferences, health, and politics. She is the senior editor for sister websites OrganicAuthority.com and EcoSalon.com, and works as a research associate and editor with the Cornucopia Institute, the organic industry watchdog group. Jill has been featured in The Huffington Post, MTV, Reality Sandwich, and Eat Drink Better. www.jillettinger.com.