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USDA Organic Checkoff Program Under Fire

By May 5, 2017June 10th, 2021Industry News
USDA Organic PacGourmet

In January, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) unveiled a proposal for a research and promotional “checkoff” program for organic food, which many believe could unfairly promote large organic processors’ needs over those of family farmers. Many organic farmers and processors continue to oppose an organic checkoff program.

A checkoff is a program in which large producers tax themselves to promote research, development and advertising. Think “Got Milk?,” and “Meat, It’s What’s for Dinner”–two of the USDA’s more well-known checkoff programs. Already burdened by certification paperwork and fees, smaller organic farmers fear more bureaucracy will add to the already irksome requirements and ultimately hurt business for smaller producers. In addition to heavy bureaucracy, opponents of the program cite lack of accountability for how funds are allocated.  

Small Producers Object

According to the Cornucopia Institute, a No Organic Checkoff Coalition, representing rank-and-file organic farmers and ranchers, has formed that is advocating against the USDA’s plan. Many small and family farmers, already forced to take part in some or all of the 22 existing checkoff programs that tax farmers on production, are crying foul. They say that the money from the programs benefits industrial-scale producers.  

The No Organic Checkoff Coalition is made of 27 nonprofit organic food organizations. The coalition believes that producers funds would be better spent investing in their own businesses, improving operations and expanding production.

Benefits for Larger Producers

Another concern is that promoting organic food will have the unintended consequence of spurring demand for low-cost imported foods. People need to understand the context of organic and sustainable production, including carbon footprint from transporting foods around the world.

Food and Water Watch is also opposed to the program, pointing out that the majority of organizations that represent organic farmers and businesses question the need for a checkoff at all, given that organic demand already outstrips supply. Checkoffs are supposed to provide marketing support for shrinking markets. They claim that a better goal would be to increase domestically produced organic food.

Tax Hits Everyone

The program would tax any organic business with over $250,000 in earnings. The burden of the checkoff program, however, would not be limited just to farmers. Every player netting over $250K along the organic supply chain—farmers, handlers, food makers, distributors and organic CPG brands—would be required to participate.

The group sponsoring the checkoff program, the Organic Trade Association (OTA), came under fire when some OTA board members endorsed a Monsanto-backed U.S. Senate bill that would immediately preempt existing GMO Labeling laws that are widely supported by the organic community and by some ninety percent of consumers. The moved prompted at least one organization, the Organic Seed Growers Trade Association, to leave the OTA.

Giant Corporations Involved

“It’s important for the world to understand that it was the Organic Trade Association that killed our state GMO labeling laws by backing Monsanto’s Stabenow-Roberts bill,” said Maine organic seed farmer and longtime OSGATA President, Jim Gerritsen. “It’s clear that Organic Trade Association has come under the control of a small group of lobbyists controlled by giant-food corporations that also own organic brands.”

For more information on why organic farmers oppose OTA’s organic checkoff research and promotion program proposal, see