One of the biggest fights in food is about to become a civil war

How the bitter debate over a producer-funded organic "checkoff" program reveals a movement's growing pains—and the fault lines of American agriculture


by Joe Fassler, The New Food Economy

March 9th, 2017


The history of the organic movement has been marked by vigorous debate about the meaning of the word, which priorities matter most, and who gets to decide. From early arguments about closed-loop systems and off-farm inputs to more recent dust-ups over lawn waste and hydroponics, the term has always been a flashpoint for larger disputes about ethics, economics, and environmental stewardship. So it means a lot to say that the industry is facing the starkest, most bitterly divisive choice it has confronted since the acrimonious process, back in 2000, that led to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA)’s official certification standard.


The question? Whether there should be an organic “checkoff” —that is, a federally mandated research and promotion program that would serve, and be funded by, the entire industry. On April 19, USDA is expected to release the final ruling that will enshrine the organic checkoff’s structure and let stakeholders vote on whether to move forward. The date has already been pushed back once, thanks to the Trump Administration’s ongoing freeze on new federal regulations, so it’s not clear exactly how and when the vote will take place. But one thing is for sure: the prospect of an organic checkoff looks likely to inflame the battles that have long divided the organic movement, and turn them into a full-blown civil war.


For those who aren’t quite sure how checkoffs work, here’s a quick primer. In theory, these programs are a way for producers to band together, using their collective power to spur demand and increase sales. A single soybean farmer, say, can’t afford to advertise nationally, or sponsor research that helps to increase yields. But America’s soybean farmers pay a little each year into a mandatory checkoff program overseen by USDA and the United Soybean Board, and that allows the industry to pay for profit-boosting crop research and marketing spots on prime-time TV. Everyone sacrifices a little, the thinking goes, and everyone benefits. We pay taxes according to the same logic, and many farmers refer to checkoffs as what they essentially are—an industry-specific tax.


Currently, USDA oversees 22 checkoff programs, representing commodities from peanuts to popcorn, blueberries to Christmas trees. The programs can make millions of dollars per year, enough money to fund extensive research and pay for some national advertising. If you watched Super Bowl LI, you may have seen ads featuring Jon Lovitz’s floating head, hissing at you to eat more guacamole. It was paid for by Avocados from Mexico, an industry group funded by the Hass avocado checkoff. The most successful initiatives have birthed enduring pop-culture catchphrases, from “Got Milk?” to “Beef: It’s What’s for Dinner,” and “Pork: The Other White Meat.”


Back to the current dilemma. Some feel that the organic industry needs the kind of buying power only a checkoff can provide. After all, there’s trouble in health-food paradise: though organic has been the fastest-growing sector of the food market for over a decade, it’s still a sliver of the overall pie. (As I reported recently, only 1 percent of U.S. cropland is certified organic.) If “organic” is really going to go head-to-head with conventionally grown—if it’s going to become the norm, not the hard-to-afford exception—it will need to increase visibility, strengthen consumer loyalty, and develop new production and distribution methods that increase supply without compromising its widely trusted brand.


“Now’s the time, because the industry is facing challenges with the gap between demand and supply, pressures on farmers for price, and confusion on the part of the consumer about the seal and the attributes associated with organic,” says Laura Batcha, president of the Organic Trade Association, the trade group that represents the industry, and which pushed for the program. “It just makes sense for there to be self-investment through the small assessment.”


Batcha, in other words, feels that organic is ready for its “Got Milk?” moment.


Which all sounds great in theory. But the reality, as always, is more complicated.



A checkered past: existing checkoff programs cast a long shadow ...


All for one. One for all? Debating the merits of a checkoff for organic ...


Freedom not to speak: Checkoff programs and the First Amendment ...


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