The Organic Trade Association is planning a voluntary industry checkoff campaign to fund research, promotion and education about organics. The group's action comes four months after the U.S. Department of Agriculture terminated its proposed rule to establish a national research and promotion program for certified organic products because of what it termed a "split within the industry."
"There is a critical need to educate consumers about organic, for more technical assistance to help more farmers transition to organic, and to loudly promote the organic brand," Laura Batcha, OTA's CEO and executive director, said in a release. "Responding to that need, we are launching a two-track effort to develop a voluntary governance approach and to also advance initiatives that will deliver immediate big wins for the organic sector."
One path will consist of a governance subcommittee asking interested parties this fall for their best ideas on how to achieve maximum participation in a voluntary checkoff program, the group said. The other is a subcommittee to fund prototype programs to improve consumer awareness of organics. An OTA program already in play is "It's Not Complicated." Its goal is to raise $1 million in each of the next two years to help reduce consumer confusion about organics.
This move by the Organic Trade Association — which represents more than 9,500 organic businesses across all 50 states — isn't surprising. The group signaled last May, after the USDA suddenly withdrew the proposed checkoff rule, that it would continue to promote organics through private-sector initiatives.
What may be hard to replicate is the estimated $30 million OTA could have had from fees assessed under a USDA checkoff program for additional research, technical assistance and consumer education. But organic producers and other stakeholders may be able to pool their resources together to accomplish some of the same goals on their own.
Some organic farm and advocacy groups — such as the Wisconsin Farmers Union, the Cornucopia Institute, and the No Organic Checkoff Coalition — had opposed the OTA's checkoff proposal. They said the plan wouldn't work for small, independent organic producers, the fees were too high, the OTA doesn't represent their interests and research wasn't a high enough priority. There also were objections to USDA regulations that organics couldn't advertise themselves as better than conventional products, which would limit any advantages from a national marketing campaign.
Some suspected the USDA was following orders from the Trump administration when it pulled the proposed rule for establishing a national organic checkoff program. It's possible conventional producers influenced the president or his advisors toward the decision in order to keep organics from winning more of the marketplace. According to OTA, sales of organic food jumped 6.4% last year to a record $45.2 billion, which is 5.5% of the total U.S. retail food market. That's less than the 9% sales growth the sector posted in 2016 — but higher than the 1.1% sales bump the total U.S. food market saw in 2017.
The OTA has been hit with a one-two punch this year from the USDA. Before its checkoff withdrawal, the department withdrew in March the organic livestock and poultry practices rule that would have set animal welfare standards for organic agriculture. The USDA said it did so because adopting the measure exceeded its statutory authority. The OTA has filed a lawsuit against the agency over that decision.
The organic trade group needs to show its members and consumers that it is moving forward and isn't going to let these defeats stall progress. However, it remains to be seen whether a voluntary checkoff campaign will raise enough money to fund sufficient research, education and marketing outreach about the benefits of organics. Other challenges include combating organic fraud and maintaining the integrity of the USDA Organic seal.
On the plus side, consumers continue to seek out organic foods and beverages at an increasing rate, and manufacturers are responding by introducing more such products, so the group knows it has an engaged audience interested in what happens next.
According to Nielsen, 88% of U.S. households purchased organic foods and beverages during 2017, while organic product sales grew 9.8% and volume increased 11.4%. Organic foods also are expanding beyond natural and fresh markets. Supermarkets, mass merchandisers and discount grocery chains now represent a combined 25% of organic sales, making them more widely available to a diverse group of consumers. For the OTA, the continued popularity of organics could make the next steps it takes a little easier.