The organic industry is thriving in 2017.
As of end-of-year data, the U.S. industry in 2016 saw its largest dollar gain ever, an increase of $4.2 billion that brought the overall industry total to $43.3 billion, according to the Organic Trade Association.
For the fourth year in a row, according to OTA data, the organic industry experienced double-digit growth at 10.8%, triple the growth rate of the overall food market at 3.3% (2015 data).
Given the size and scale and of the organic industry — and most of that $43 billion in sales represents organically grown food — USDA is now considering creating an Organic Research and Promotion Check-off Program that would cover all organic products.
Everyone in animal agriculture knows what a checkoff is: Producers pay a per-head fee, which goes to support category research and marketing to benefit everyone in the business. As an OTA news release noted, there are “research and promotion orders,” as checkoffs are titled, in 20 agricultural product sectors, which support industry-wide research and consumer education campaigns.
“This [checkoff] proposal would afford the organic industry the same opportunity as other industry groups, and it has gathered wide industry support,” an OTA statement noted. “The public comments received by USDA since its publication of the proposal on Jan. 18 have been overwhelmingly, 10 to 1, in support of an organic check-off.”
To date, OTA officials claimed that 1,400 organic stakeholders have publicly supported the organic checkoff; 75% of them are certified organic farmers and ranchers.
Checkoff programs are popular, effective and most importantly, they don’t get put in place unless the producers and growers who are affected vote to approve the imposition of what amounts to a tax on whatever commodities are included in the program.
The problem? According to a Washington, D.C.-based activist group, “Organic farmers don’t want one.”
Really? As the group Food and Water Watch stated, an organic checkoff is “the wrong tool” for organic producers, and people need to tell USDA that “an organic checkoff is a bad idea.”
My first question to them is, have you seen the stats the Organic Trade Association has compiled? Isn’t a 75% approval a pretty solid approval margin?
Not to ideologically driven purists. Instead, their statements imply that organic growers don’t realize the horror they’re about to inflict on themselves.
And that is the No. 1 delusion of hardcore activists — call them “extremists,” if that sounds better: They, and only they, understand the issue, and they, and only they, have the better solution. Doesn’t matter what the stakeholders themselves believe; activists know what’s better for you than you do.
Here’s proof: “In theory, checkoff programs allow an entire agricultural sector to fund research and marketing to boost a product’s success, with all parties benefiting in the process,” the Food and Water Watch statement noted — which is 100% correct. In fact, the proposed organic checkoff would devote a minimum of 50% of program resources to research to support organic growers dealing with very different challenges than conventional farmers and ranchers.
All good, right?
“In reality, big industrial-scale players are the ones who benefit [from a checkoff] at the expense of smaller farmers,” their statement claimed.
Now, you and I understand that there really aren’t any “big, industrial-scale players” in the organic sector. Heck, the entire category totals only $43 billion, and we know from USDA data that there are thousands of certified organic farmers and growers who each have a piece of that relatively small pie.
But that’s delusion No. 2 in which activists indulge: Ignore reality and preach directly to consumers who don’t understand business dynamics, who aren’t aware of the facts on the ground and who don’t bother to think through the consequences of whatever action the ideologues are demanding be put into place.
Here’s the proof of that assertion: Food and Water Watch is claiming that, “Marketing isn't the problem — and that’s what checkoffs are geared toward addressing.”
Didn’t they read through the USDA proposal? It states that a minimum of 50% of checkoff dollars are to be devoted to research, not marketing.
And if the hotheads at Food and Water Watch had bothered to impartially examine the impact of other commodity checkoff programs, they’d realize that although the advertising slogans get the media coverage, the real traction from checkoff dollars has come from research that has impacted product quality, consistency and production efficiency and productivity.
For example: The checkoff-funded National Beef Quality Audits, which have been conducted for more than 25 years, have catalyzed significant changes in livestock breeding, feeding and management that have resulted in more consistency — and new products — for consumers and more value for producers.
But activists don’t care about any of that. They’re pushing a position for their own benefit, not promoting anything practical to benefit some other constituency.
After USDA closes comments on its organic checkoff proposal (April 19, if you care to weigh in), the language will be finalized, the industry will vote on the program, and it will be overwhelmingly accepted and put into place later this year.
And Food and Water Watch will simply move on to its next “Critically important, you must contact [fill-in-the-name-of-whatever-agency’s-involved] IMMEDIATELY!” campaign.
And by the way? When you log onto their “action page” to tell USDA that a program paid for by organic growers, for organic growers, to benefit organic growers is all wrong, you’ll notice one very prominent feature.
A giant button that says “DONATE.”
Editor’s Note: The opinions in this commentary are those of Dan Murphy, a veteran journalist and commentator.