This past May, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) unexpectedly terminated the rulemaking process that would have established an Organic Research and Promotion Program (organic check-off). USDA said it made the move “based on uncertain industry support,” despite a public comment period that generated Organic Trade Association comments naming 1,358 public endorsers (including over 1,230 certified organic operators) and direct comments from over 11,000 supporters.
As projected by the Organic Trade association, the program would have generated close to $30 million annually, provided funding for much needed organic research, technical assistance for new organic farmers and educating consumers on the meaning of organic.
Although the program was not without its controversies, everyone agreed that funding is needed now more than ever to grow and protect organic agriculture in the United States.
“There is broad agreement in the diverse organic sector on the critical need for more research, more technical assistance, and more education on organic. As a result, the organic industry itself is ready and eager to work together on innovative solutions that will have important and long-lasting benefits for organic farmers, businesses and consumers,” says Laura Batcha, CEO and Executive Director of the Organic Trade Association.
USDA’s decision could have been the death knell for a mandatory organic check-off, but the industry isn’t ready to bury it so easily.
Even before USDA announced its decision, the organic industry was breathing life into new solutions.
This past March at Natural Products Expo West, Organic Voices and 30 leading brands convened a meeting with other industry leaders. They agreed to fund a collaborative message campaign that would reduce or eliminate consumer confusion about organic.
The belief that a rising tide lifts "all boats" buoyed them to support a sector-wide marketing effort, a campaign that would help organic achieve significantly greater consumption, loyalty and continued growth.
The goal for the campaign is to raise a minimum of $1 million for each of the next two years. The fund currently stands at just over $725,000 with leading contributions from Amy’s, Patagonia, Annie’s, Nature’s Path and yes, Walmart. The campaign must meet its two-year goals for the messaging to move forward.
Meanwhile, the Organic Trade Association is resurrecting its efforts without USDA.
Following USDA’s refusal to move forward with the mandatory organic check-off, the Organic Trade Association quickly moved to reconvene its original check-off task force with a reinvigorated Steering Committee.
The Steering Committee will evaluate and stand up a voluntary check-off program in a way that builds off the multi-year work and the USDA proposal. The Steering Committee is convening a multi-pronged private sector effort to meet the need for coordinated organic research and promotion.
This effort will bring together OTA’s initiative-based campaign and Organic Voices messaging initiative along with NMI consumer research.
The program is aptly called “GRO,” which stands for Generate Results and Opportunity for Organic.
What will a voluntary Organic Research and Promotion program accomplish?
A voluntary Organic Research and Promotion program will raise funds from the private sector that are dedicated to promoting organic AND researching solutions to problems facing the organic industry.
The initial goals of the program are to educate consumers about what organic is, its benefits and to distinguish organic from other claims and unregulated seals like “natural” and “Non-GMO.”
The next round of activity will confirm the science behind the environmental and public health benefits of organic. It will fund research to solve problems such as invasive pests and weed control, and bring new farmers into organic production through information and technical assistance.
Is an Organic Research and Promotion Program for everyone?
The critical and precarious word here is voluntary. Everyone who makes their P&L goals by producing and or selling organic goods should be heavily invested in the initiative.
Anyone who cares about the future of organic can and should contribute.
Gary Hirshberg, Stonyfield Co-founder and Chief Organic Optimist and Chairman of Organic Voices weighed in with the following message:
“In the 41 years I’ve been engaged in organic advocacy, there has never been a more critical and compelling time for all organic stakeholders to pool our resources to promote organic.
“The Administration’s dismantling of EPA regulatory protections, abandoning climate policy and cancelling the Organic Checkoff program makes clear that the only way consumers can get needed information about how to protect themselves and their loved ones from unnecessary toxin exposures in our food, water, air and soil is by our industry standing together and funding a broad education effort.
“The Organic Voices messaging effort will help to erase consumer confusion and make clear exactly why Organic is one of the very best and most practical steps one can take to promote preventative health.”
Want to be involved in seeing organic GRO?
At Natural Products Expo East in September, educational sessions on Thursday were to include one dedicated to the new GRO initiative. There, the steering committee was to launch the prototype campaign unveiling the design and implementation of this voluntary program.
It’s not complicated - we need to raise money if we are to grow organic farmland and organic consumption. The easiest way to be involved is to open your checkbook and contribute.
“This is too big a lift for any one company or even sector. All brands, producers, and retailers who sell organic goods should come together as we build a tide to lift all boats. I daresay it may be one of the most patriotic things any of us can do in this environment,” Gary Hirschberg urges.
We can only make this happen if everyone who has a stake in eliminating consumer confusion, producing more organic goods, and building the organic brand is willing to make an investment.
If you want to be more involved in the design or governance of the program and you aren’t already an OTA member, consider becoming one today. Contact Tessa Young (firstname.lastname@example.org) to learn more, get involved, or contribute to this effort.
With conviction we will revive the organic check-off so that organic flourishes and GROs for many years to come. //
Melody Meyer, a past president of the Organic Trade Association, is a member of the Organic Trade Association’s Steering Committee now looking into a voluntary organic check-off. Active in the organic industry for over 40 years, she recently retired from her post as Vice President of Policy and Industry Relations for United Natural Foods. You can follow her blog Organic Matters at www.organicmattersblog.com.