By Melody Meyer, vice president of policy and industry relations, United Natural Foods (UNFI)
Despite the uncertainties and administrative foibles, it’s still important to weigh in today.
Like it or not, we are well into a new year and a new federal government. Despite the many changes and sometimes uncertain paths, I believe the organic community is poised for growth. And I believe that growth will be greater if we decide to adopt an organic check-off program.
USDA recently published the first draft of the proposed GRO Organic in the Federal Register. After his Inauguration, Donald Trump froze all pending regulations not yet in effect so the new administration can take time to review everything pending. Since GRO would be self-funded by the industry and not the federal government, I believe GRO will move forward.
Everyone in the organic produce community needs to weigh in on GRO today! Whether you are a grower, handler, retailer, foodservice operator, you need to let USDA know how you feel about the proposed assessment.
Why does the organic industry need a check-off? Hasn’t it been growing double-digits year after year, reaching a whopping $43.3 billion in sales last year?
Organics still suffer numerous growing pains. There remains widespread consumer confusion about the organic label. Shoppers can’t easily distinguish between the myriad of “good food” labels in the marketplace. Consumers aren’t aware that USDA provides rigorous certification, verification and oversight on compliance. They aren’t aware that no synthetic pesticides, herbicides or GMOs are allowed in organic production.
Despite consumer confusion, organic supply hasn’t kept up with demand. We import more ingredients every year to fuel the exponential growth. The U.S. is the largest corn and soybean producer in the world, yet organic soybeans and corn are among the largest imported organic food products.
Transition to organic production is difficult, fraught with economic perils and uncertain paths. During the three full years of organic production before a farm is certified as organic, the farmer gets paid conventional prices. During this time, yields can be lower waiting while costs are higher.
The proposed GRO assessment proposal would generate needed funds to:
- educate consumers about organic and its benefits. Imagine a marketing slogan and well-funded promotional campaign such as “The Incredible Edible Organic,” or “Got Organic?”
- distinguish organic from lesser claims and unregulated seals like "natural." Imagine television or full-page ads clearly spelling out that only organic is certified, verified and qualified to be the gold standard of food.
- confirm the science behind the environmental and public health benefits of organic. Federal dollars available for organic research often require matching funds from the industry. The GRO proposal assigns 25 percent of total pooled funding to match funds for research activities.
- undertake research to solve problems such as invasive pests and weed control. Tackling unmet research needs, such as alternatives for weed control and agricultural inputs, could translate to everyday solutions for organic farmers and encourage others to transition to organic practices.
- bring new farmers into organic production through information and technical assistance. The Natural Resources Conservation Service funds just one organic specialist in the entire United States! Why? Because the position requires a 50:50 match from the industry. A $1.5 million investment of matching funds could support 25 organic specialists nationwide.
- reduce the supply crunch by transitioning farmland to organic production across the U.S. Imagine if GRO funds could be used to invest in young farmer education through grants, scholarships and supervised agricultural experiences. The proposed assessment could raise more than $30 million a year for promotional, educational and research activities. I firmly believe this could take organic to new heights for producers and consumers alike.
I support an agricultural production method that protects our soils, waters, our farmers and farm workers from toxic polluting inputs and gives everyone greater access to healthy organic food.
An organic check-off will carry organic agriculture soaring to new heights. If you believe growing organic is important, it’s time to make a comment. You can easily do so here.
Melody is a weekly contributor to OPN Connect. You can follow her blog at www.organicmattersblog.com