Organic Checkoff Program? The Debate Continues!

OrganicFoodHealth_m_0904You may be familiar with well-known slogans such as “The Incredible Edible Egg,” “Got Milk?” or “Pork. The Other White Meat.” All of these are examples of advertising campaigns funded by commodity research and promotion programs, otherwise known as “checkoff programs”.

How they work

These programs are administered by the United States Dept. of Agriculture (USDA) and run by commodity producers to promote specific commodities (beef, pork, soybeans, eggs, milk, blueberries, avocados), through agricultural research and consumer marketing campaigns. The money to pay for these programs comes from mandatory fees (taxes) placed on commodity producers. For example, for every $100 value of pork sold, pork producers pay $0.40 towards the pork checkoff program. For the government, the purpose of these programs is to stimulate demand for the commodities that benefit from federal price supports. Once consumer demand increases, the government can reduce tax-funded payments to the farmers producing the commodities. In theory, this seems mutually beneficial for all involved in the program.

Unfortunately, by the mid-2000s, many of the checkoffs initiated in the 1980s were facing legal challenges and resistance from pork, beef, dairy and mushroom producers, to name a few. Concerns were that the programs were actually not benefitting producers, not being responsibly managed, and inaccurately representing producer interests. The contention towards these programs continues today and is causing further debate as the focus shifts to another growing commodity market – organics.

Does organic food need a checkoff program?

Maybe, maybe not. The House and Senate have amended the 2013 Farm Bill to allow the USDA to create a checkoff program for organic products. This highly controversial proposal will require every producer and handler of certified organic foods to pay a fee per unit of sale.

organicresearchpromotionprogramThe Organic Trade Association (OTA) has pushed for this program since 2010, and believes consumers cannot currently tell the difference between the unregulated terms “natural” and the highly regulated “certified organic”. They believe this program will help educate consumers on the distinction. The OTA would also like to increase consumer consumption of organic products by 5% per year. Although still considered small, the market share of organics has steadily been growing by 10 percent each year and reached $35 billion in sales in 2011. There is big money to be made here!

This might sound like a positive agenda, but whose interests are really at play? Yes, the OTA represents hundreds of organic producers, but they are also dominated by large food processors, marketers and retailers.  And, just like every other commodity market, the organic sector has become increasingly dominated by a small number of large players.

For all of the smaller farm players, the idea of a mandatory program that costs money and may not provide much value in return deserves a second look.

Why the controversy?  Do farmers benefit?

Opponents of the proposed checkoff program believe that, similar to the many other commodity checkoff programs, it will increase costs while failing to improve farmers’ livelihoods or expand market opportunities as intended – especially for lower-income small and mid-sized farmers.

A USDA-appointed board of directors governs each checkoff program; they decide where to allocate funds and which marketing messages to promote. Many farmers are wary of a mandatory arrangement where their dollars are controlled by a select few – especially when the controllers are lobbyists from the largest organic food processing companies. Along with this, most of the largest organic food companies are also international companies, so who can guarantee these funds will be used solely to promote US-grown crops?

Many opponents also disagree with a marketing campaign focused solely on educating consumers about the difference between a generic “natural” processed food and a “certified organic” one. This fails to educate about the many other important benefits of organic agriculture, such as environmentally sound production systems that address climate change, biodiversity loss, and damaging nitrogen use.

Overall, past case studies illustrate how ineffective these programs can be. Without a crystal clear picture of how this program will benefit anyone but the largest organic producers, processors, marketers and retailers, it will be hard to convince the smaller players to foot the bill.

Organic Industry Structure, 2013

Organic Industry Structure, 2013. Click to view.

What You Can Do.  Take Action!

Dozens of organizations representing organic farmers are gathering signatures to oppose the creation of a new organic checkoff program.

To sign on to the letter, send an email to campaign organizers at with “NO to an organic checkoff” in the subject line.  They will consolidate e-signatures with the sign-on letter and present them to all members of Congress, all Farm Bill House and Senate conference committee members, the USDA, and any other parties involved.

You don’t have to be a farmer to sign on in support either! Any individual who cares about this issue can sign this petition that says that you DO NOT support the establishment of an organic checkoff program, but you DO support a permanent exemption for organically certified operations to pay into federal mandatory check-off programs.

For more information about the organic check-off program, please visit the campaign website.

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