When I first heard that there could be a $30 million-plus annual war chest to build expertise and capacity for organic farming in the United States, and educate consumers about organic food and farming, via the Organic Trade Association's Organic Check-Off program, I thought this sounded like a pretty good idea. In addition to the fact that we need to research and share best organic practices for crop yields and ecosystem health, and develop the next generation of organic farmers in the U.S., the vast majority of Americans lack basic knowledge of what organic agriculture and organic products are, and many consider completely meaningless claims such as "natural" and almost meaningless claims like "non-GMO" as superior attributes.
However, I understood that the proposed check-off was controversial and decided to investigate. Largely I found that concerns stem from bad experiences with other agricultural commodity programs like beef, pork and eggs, that benefitted large agribusiness and processors while American farmers were screwed over. But I found that the proposed organic check-off program has been designed with a lot of feedback from organic farmers in a sensible and fair fashion, and I urge my fellow organic stakeholders to support it.
Of the $30 million-plus raised annually by the check-off, the proportion paid in by farmers (versus downstream organic processors and brand holders) is less than 10 percent. In fact I helped fight for a proposal that limits the basis farmers pay to only 0.1 percent of "net farm income" after ALL expenses (feed, fuel, labor etc.) are deducted; but all downstream companies can deduct only organic material costs. I could have fought where all farmers pay nothing, but then they would have no votes to control and drive the best programs for farmers: of the $30 million-plus raised annually, 25 percent minimum is dedicated to regional American farming programs, not marketing, by an elected board that is at least half farmers. Further, organic farmers who gross less than $250,000 are exempt and don't have to pay anything, but can opt into the program and pay, in order to vote.
The unfortunate reality is that most downstream organic processors and brands are now owned by largely non-organic companies who are not paying anything to promote organics. This check-off program leverages funds that would not otherwise be doing anything remotely good for organics.
I've heard concerns from some NGOs that the check-off program will take away the funding base for their campaigns. I can count on my fingers and maybe some toes where virtually all organic company funding comes from to power the righteous NGOs and political campaigns in our world: we're one of those funders and I can say that none of us are going to stop throwing down like we do. The check-off is a relatively minimal expense for us and everyone else, and most everyone else isn't doing crap to support, defend, and promote organic integrity or other important issues with their profits. Furthermore, every poll that's ever been done on GMO labeling shows that consumers who purchase organics are much more supportive of GMO labeling and pretty much every other progressive food policy you can think of. We need to build our base and fight fire with fire, and this check-off can help us do it. We are up against an incredibly sophisticated agricultural machine driven by pesticides and fossil fuel that is destroying our soil and jeopardizing our short and long-term health.
It is true that organic check-off marketing by law needs to be positive about what organics are, versus negative what the industrial agriculture machine is about. But educating uninformed people on the basics that organic food is grown without synthetic pesticides and fertilizers, without artificial ingredients and preservatives, in healthy living soil that can sequester huge amounts of carbon and help reverse climate change, is huge. And those of us who hit harder will continue to hit harder in helping Americans wake up and make the shift to more sustainable healthier food from organic agriculture.
I thus urge my organic comrades to put in place a solid organic check-off program that will benefit organic farmers as well as processors, as well as help drive positive change generally in our food system.