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Daily News Blog

18
May

USDA Ends Organic Checkoff Program

(Beyond Pesticides, May 18, 2018) The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) is putting an end to the process of creating an organic “check-off” promotion program, according to an announcement posted to the Federal Register earlier this week. The program, controversial from the start, split the organic community. While the industry group the Organic Trade Association (OTA) pushed for the program, small producers and family farmers cited exorbitant costs and ineffective government bureaucracy in their opposition.

Check-off programs are traditionally created for producers to pool their money together to further research, information sharing, and promotion of a particular food commodity. Famous programs of the past include “Beef: It’s What’s For Dinner,” “Got Milk?” and “I Love Eggs.” The proposed organic program was unique in that it aimed to promote an entire industry, rather than a specific food product. However, opponents view the program as another tax on farmers that is unnecessary and potentially damaging to small organic producers, citing a history of rigid guidelines, fund mismanagement, and lack of accountability. In the past, successful checkoff programs were associated with declines in family farmers, and opponents believe the program would promote low-priced organic imports at the expense of growing U.S. organic acreage. In eliminating the rule, USDA cited, “uncertain industry support” and “outstanding substantive issues” with the checkoff program.

OTA, however, is pushing back strongly against USDA’s decision, indicating the action as exemplary of the Department’s unfair treatment the organic industry. In a press release, OTA wrote that USDA’s decision “reflects a pattern of holding back forward progress on organic,” and that, “It makes no sense that the agency is continuing to take steps to cut it off at the knees.”

“If there was ever a need for an organic check-off, it is now,” said Laura Batcha, Executive Director of the Organic Trade Association. “We are seeing organic dairy and egg sales flattening because of USDA’s failure to move the animal welfare rule forward. Organic research funding is uncertain because it is tied to the unpredictable fate of the Farm Bill. The government also has interfered with the strong role of the National Organic Standards Board. These actions hurt U.S. organic farmers and businesses.”

OTA further cited the juxtaposition of eliminating the organic check-off program after releasing the “smiley face GMO disclosure logo” as evidence that the Department is not being even-handed.  Indeed, the agency appears to be targeting many policies recently passed by the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) aimed at boosting the integrity of the organic label. This has led to a rise in third party organic labels such as the Real Organic Project and Regenerative Organic Certification.

According to the Northeast Organic Dairy Producers Alliance, “We believe that existing Check-off programs have not demonstrated that they contribute to keeping family farm producers in business. We continue to see declining farm numbers and increasing concentration in agriculture while these commodity research and promotion programs are in effect.”

While check-off program has some reeling and others sighing relief, its elimination could provide an opportunity for promote organic. “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, an NOSB member formerly with the Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Service (MOSES) when the program was first proposed. For its part, OTA indicates it “will fully assess opportunities through the private sector to advance innovative solutions that will have important and long-lasting benefits for organic farmers.”

Beyond Pesticides strongly promotes the importance of organic farming in creating a truly sustainable food system for the future. The organization tracks the latest decisions from USDA and the NOSB affecting the integrity of the organic label through the Keeping Organic Strong webpage. Efforts to fight back and protect public trust in organic food can be found on the Save Our Organic program page. And for more information on why organic is the right choice for your food dollars see the Why Organic? page.

All unattributed positions and opinions in this piece are those of Beyond Pesticides.

Source: Federal Register, OTA Press Release

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