'You have organic companies paying into efforts that are directly working against them'
By MATEUSZ PERKOWSKI
Organic growers need a "megaphone" to promote their crops, an industry leader says.
Marty Mesh, executive director of Florida Organic Growers, has proposed a checkoff similar to those used by other commodity groups.
To support his views, Mesh pointed to a Stanford University study last year that looked at the health benefits of organic foods and made big waves in the media.
The study, which concluded there's scant nutritional difference between organic and conventional food, generated widespread coverage and backlash from organic supporters.
"It was everywhere. You couldn't avoid it," he said. "What you heard everywhere is organic is no better than conventional."
The episode led Mesh to conclude that the organic industry needs a coordinated way to respond to such controversies.
"Organic needs a megaphone," he said.
One approach to having a unified voice could be the creation of an organic research and promotion program, similar to USDA-administered checkoffs for beef, milk, eggs and other products, he said.
The proposal was discussed by Mesh and representatives of the Organic Trade Association at a town hall meeting during the recent Organicology conference in Portland.
Currently, many organic producers are assessed under checkoff programs that often claim organic production methods offer no benefit, Mesh said. "You have organic companies paying into efforts that are directly working against them."
If an organic checkoff were established, farmers could choose to pay into it and opt out of other programs, said Marni Karlin, associate director of legislative and legal affairs for OTA.
However, forming a checkoff for organic food faces a substantial legal hurdle.
Under current law, organic crops and livestock aren't eligible for a checkoff program because they're not a distinct commodity.
"USDA has said they don't have the authority to do it," Karlin said.
Before the organic industry can even submit a valid petition to the agency, the law would have to be amended to specify that certified organic goods qualify for a checkoff program, she said.
Apart from the practical challenge of pushing for an act of Congress, the prospect of a checkoff faces philosophical challenges within the organic industry.
There have been murmurs that the proposal is just a method for the OTA to obtain more funding for itself, Mesh said.
"I've seen a lot of misinformation out there," he said, noting that checkoff dollars would help the entire organic sector.
There's also a broader skepticism about checkoff programs in general, with suspicions about whether farmer dollars are put to the best use, said Laura Batcha, executive vice president of OTA.
The OTA is asking organic farmers and handlers for alternative ideas to raise funds, but the downside of voluntary programs is that people can reap the benefits without contributing financially, she said.
Assessments are bound to be a significant point in the overall debate over an organic checkoff -- whether producers should pay per unit, as a percentage of revenue or based on profits, Batcha said.
Producers and handlers at various points in the supply chain have different margins, she said.
If the assessment were only to be paid by handlers, that would relieve farmers of the financial burden.
However, some oppose that approach because they want to have active oversight of the program, Batcha said.
"The question is, should certain actors be exempted, and what's the best way to do that?" she said.