- The Organic Trade Association announced a six-month initiative to gather ideas on the best ways to design and implement a voluntary "checkoff-like" program for the organic sector.
- The "GRO Organic" program, which stands for Generate Results and Opportunity for Organic, is planned as a private-sector initiative to help the industry fund organic research, promotion and education. Input is being collected electronically between now and April 30 using a series of questions, along with any "big ideas" that might benefit organic farmers, companies or consumers.
- "We want GRO Organic to be a bold and engaged opt-in program that pools resources from everyone who can contribute so that we can collectively address critical needs across the organic sector," Laura Batcha, the OTA's CEO and executive director, said in a release. "The need for more investment in organic is widely agreed upon — how we solve for it is what we must now work together to determine."
The Organic Trade Association has been pushing for years for an organic industry checkoff program. The group petitioned the U.S. Department of Agriculture in 2015 for such a program, but citing a lack of consensus within the industry, the agency opted in May to terminate the proposed rule to establish one.
The group said USDA's rule termination reflects the agency's pattern of holding back progress of the $50-billion organic sector. OTA's CEO and Executive Director Laura Batcha said last spring that the agency's failure to move forward on the organic livestock and poultry practices rule has harmed organic dairy and egg sales, and she also accused the government of interfering with the National Organic Standards Board.
Despite these obstacles, the trade group said it had moved to start establishing the GRO Organic program this past summer. The OTA said there are now four prototype programs ready to launch in January "to invest in critical needs and serve as proven projects for investment when a formal voluntary program rolls out." It is also joining the Organic Voices' "It's Not Complicated" effort financing a nationwide campaign to limit consumer confusion about organic.
The OTA also said it has identified three additional programs it will undertake. They involve doing in-depth consumer research on ways to reinforce the organic brand, supporting soil health and climate change research to help illustrate the positive impact of organic, and financing more organic extension agents nationwide.
It might not be easy to line up enough organic industry stakeholders to fund a voluntary "checkoff-like" program — let alone administer it. The fact that it will be voluntary could help, although it may also limit the number of participating farmers and producers. OTA has said there are more than 26,000 certified organic growers, ranchers, processors, handlers and business owners operating today, but many of them would need to sign up to get anywhere near the $30 million that could be raised through a USDA-sponsored mandatory checkoff program.
The industry faces other challenges as well, including combating organic fraud and maintaining the integrity of the USDA Organic seal. But 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.
Soliciting ideas on how to shape a voluntary "checkoff-like" program could be a good way to proceed since organic stakeholders probably have a lot of expertise they can share. If the GRO Organic program succeeds in attracting enough participants and sufficient funds, it could help move the industry through additional research, promotion and education. It might also illustrate that a determined trade association can make things happen without the support and participation of the USDA — and that more elements of the organic industry are invested in its future than was previously thought.