Farmers debate value of proposed organic checkoffs

Carrots_FreshPicked_blogAccording to the article “Organic Checkoff: Is it What’s for Dinner?” The United States Department of Agriculture is currently proposing a redirection of funds from general checkoff programs to instead be used for promotion and research in organic foods.

Checkoffs are defined as a percentage of farmer’s income that is then used by the USDA for promotion and research in the farmer’s industry. For example, previous campaigns such as, “Got Milk?,” “Pork. The Other White Meat,” and “Beef: It’s What’s for Dinner,” were all checkoff programs.

Those in favor of creating this new checkoff believe that it would both encourage other American farmers to use organic practices as well as increase consumer consumption. Laura Batcha, Executive Director at the Organic Trade Association agrees that an organic checkoff program could increase the production of organic foods in the U.S.

“While the organic industry itself is growing at a consistent rate, the conversion of acreage hasn’t kept up with the market growth,” says Batcha. Out of the total 4% of organic food consumed in America, 3% is imported.

As a whole, the organic industry does not necessarily agree that the creation of this organic checkoff would be a beneficial change. For example, the article states “checkoff dollars can’t go to disparage other foods, which puts organic producers in a bind.” Some in the industry believe organic foods would not be promoted properly as the USDA will not allow marketing organic foods as both safer and healthier for consumption than non-organic foods.

Another concern has been raised by the consumer advocacy group Food & Water Watch on whether the majority of small producers in the industry will be overshadowed by organic corporation giants. According to the article, “In the preliminary proposal OTA has drawn up, nine of the 17 board positions are reserved for farmers and other direct producers, but only one of those is for a small producer, by definition one who grosses less than $250,000 a year.”

A possible solution that would give both large and small farmers a voice, would be to separate farmers by category. Some farmers “would prefer to see parts of the sector take their checkoff dollars and use them within their own industry vertical (so that dairy farmers stick together, for instance), rather than compete for the same pot of money.”

By separating the industries the hope is that small farmers would have a voice in the checkoff program they are funding. “Not all checkoffs are alike. And the framework is flexible enough that organic can do it in a way that is unique to its own value systems.”

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