USDA pulls proposal after outcry (Editorial)
On the third anniversary of its initial proposal, a push to establish a federal marketing board and checkoff program for certified organic food was terminated by the USDA on May 15.
A path for the assessment on organic farmers was laid out in the 2014 Farm Bill, expanding the checkoff option past single commodities.
Had it not been terminated, the checkoff’s next step would have been getting published as a final rule and going to a vote by certified organic farmers and handlers. But after receiving more than 14,000 comments on the proposal, USDA said it had heard enough.
In its notice to terminate the proposal, USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service cited “uncertain industry support” and “outstanding substantive issues with the proposed program” as reasons for the termination.
“While some comments voiced support for a collective industry program, other comments stated that industry was not aligned in backing the proposal,” AMS noted.
AMS cited concern that an exemption for growers and handlers with gross revenue less than $250,000 would eliminate too many organic farmers from the program — that it could have a disproportionate impact on higher-value products; and that the program would likely result in disparaging other commodities.
Led by the Organic Trade Association, the checkoff was projected to generate $30 million annually for research and promotion of organic food by assessing farmers one-tenth of one percent of net sales of organic products. Among the goals of the checkoff were to differentiate organic food — not necessarily from conventionally-grown food but from other labeling initiatives.
From its beginning, the effort faced opposition throughout the organic sector. Groups across the country decried it as a tax that would be controlled by the large corporations owning organic brands.
The No Organic Checkoff Coalition, representing more than 6,000 organic farmers and businesses formed early on in the process.
“We have not seen any convincing evidence that such a program would support increased domestic organic production, which is one of our major concerns,” the coalition said in a 2016 letter to USDA. “While our members believe in the importance of organic research and promotion in helping to secure a stable and vibrant future for organic agriculture in the U.S., a USDA Generic Research & Promotion Order for Organic is not our vehicle of choice. There are other strategies that have been proposed and ignored.”
Laura Batcha, OTA executive director, said not even letting farmers vote on the measure themselves is “unfathomable.”
“USDA unilaterally making the decision on behalf of the 26,000-plus certified organic growers, ranchers, processors, handlers and business owners to not advance the process is stunning,” Batcha said in a news release following the termination announcement.
With the checkoff proposal now off the table communication restrictions are lifted, allowing USDA “to engage fully with all interested parties to discuss and consider the future needs of the industry,” according to the AMS.
For its part, OTA said it will “willfully assess opportunities through the private sector to advance innovative solutions that will have important and long-lasting benefits for organic farmers, businesses and consumers alike, as we face the reality, once again, that government is not willing to keep pace.”
Whichever path the industry and USDA take, either separate or together, without greater consensus among growers about the sector’s needs and priorities, more opportunities to move the industry forward will face the same fate as its proposed checkoff.
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