After the demise of the USDA mandatory research and promotion check-off attempt, the Organic Trade Association (OTA) and Organic Voices (OV) decided to take matters into their own hands.
They resolved to move forward with a check-off-like voluntary program called “GRO Organic” which stands for Generate Results and Opportunity.
OTA and OV along with over 100 industry brands and individuals have collectively raised $1.5 million this year and at least the same for 2020.
These funds will go towards immediate programs until GRO Organic is fully embraced by the organic community.
The GRO core committee is seeking input from the organic community on how to best set up this new program in the future.
They are asking everyone to provide detailed thoughts on a series of key questions on funding, participation and governance. They’re looking for “big ideas” that will positively impact organic.
Jim Riddle is a well-known organic industry thought leader, a farmer at Blue Fruit Farm, founding president of the International Organic Inspectors Association, former chair of the NOSB, and founding governing council member of the Organic Farmers Association. Jim worked as an organic outreach coordinator for the University of Minnesota and has received MOSES’ Organic Farmer of the Year, EcoFarm’s Sustie, and Beyond Pesticide’s Dragonfly awards.
Jim recently weighed in on GRO Organic’s key questions and big ideas. I was privileged to sit down with him to discuss his ideas on the voluntary program.
I noted that Jim was an early opponent of the mandatory USDA check-off and asked him, “Why do you support the voluntary idea?”
Jim replied, “To me, organic has always been community-based, and I was uncomfortable with a program that would be controlled by a Presidentially-appointed board that would regulate what could be said about organic.
I see this as a great opportunity to heal some of the tensions within different parts of our community around the proposed USDA program.
The term “check-off” creates a knee-jerk reaction with farmers who have seen mandatory programs where too much money goes towards the administration and not enough goes to benefit farmers.
Here we have a chance to do it right and keep it in the community. We can speak freely about all the benefits of organic even when it casts a shadow on the conventional industry.
There is certainly a need to raise money for all types of organic research. We pushed Congress to increase funding for dedicated organic research. We got that win in the 2018 Farm Bill, raising appropriations to $50 million over the next 5 years in OREI.
Now the community needs to raise similar funds. The private sector needs to do the same thing we asked of the public.
I think it’s great OTA has launched this effort, and the money they have raised is an excellent base to work from. Now we need to think bigger, and the entire sector needs to contribute funds going forward.”
I asked Jim what some of his must-haves are in this future program.
He said, “Organic has always been an ecological production system, and I would like to see the research and promotion activities be consistent with NOSB definition of organic, which states: “Organic is an ecological production management system that promotes and enhances biodiversity, biological cycles and soil biological activity.”
There is so much interest in soil health and the role organic systems have in sequestering carbon and helping mitigate climate change and the extreme weather events.
It’s all for naught if we don’t insist that organic is soil-based; that needs to be a starting point.
If we start there, the world is at our door to hold up the multiple benefits of organic agriculture on the promotion side and then really address the research needs of producers.
Another must-have is that the research being done must be done under certified organic systems so that the findings are relevant.
That research and its applications have spin-off benefits that aren’t limited to organic. We are seeing conventional farmers now building soil health and using cover crops. Organic research is an investment for all producers – not just organic.
The conventional system is failing to protect our water quality, it leaves the land open to erosion, it pollutes our food with toxins that cause cancers, and the products aren’t as nutritious.
I wanted to know how Jim thought research decisions should be handled regionally and nationally.
He said, “There needs to be both regional and national representation on the governing board, and we can use the regions that are defined in SARE as a model.
The board should be democratically elected from each region. Stakeholders paying into the fund would elect their representatives on a regional basis, and some of those representatives would also serve on the national board.
Crops, climate, marketing and even promotion are different in each part of the country, and that needs to be reflected in the governance of the program. Each region would have a say over a certain portion of the funds, with funds allocated regionally and nationally.
That model would get buy-in and engagement and would make the fund sustainable over time – people need to know they are getting their monies worth.
I wanted his thoughts on how we can broaden full participation and raise funds equitably.
Jim replied, “The core funding of the program should start with prime beneficiaries of organic food – the eaters – in what I call a ‘checkout check-off.’ When someone is paying for groceries, the cashier asks if they want to round up to the nearest dollar or two. The cashier would have simple point of purchase educational materials on organic to give out or reference.
The checkout fundraisers could operate one month per year, or continuously, but you would need the big box store as well as the natural grocers and food co-ops to participate to raise significant funds. You take the small retailers and bring in the large retailers, and you have a huge campaign.
It’s not an original idea, the Co-ops in the Twin Cities have been doing this for years — they call it Round-Up, and they raise $15,000 to $20,000 per store per month for various causes.
Not only would we raise funds, but we would have thousands of advocates and spokespeople in the stores who could be part of the campaign, working the cash registers. It would be a way to leverage the campaign to build awareness and support for organic agriculture.
Second, the retailers could match what the customers have paid during these campaigns. Retailers benefit from selling organic; they aren’t required to be certified, so they don’t have to pay any fees to be part of the success of organic. This is a way for them to step up and support the program.
Next, the program should ask producers, processors and distributors to pay a percentage of gross organic sales or on their profit margins, for domestic and imported organic products.
Another funding stream could include foundations and non-profits that have compatible missions. Also, the Input sector – fertilizers, machinery, seed suppliers – many are basing their business on selling to the organic sector, yet they aren’t contributing to the growth and stability of the organic sector. They should be asked to participate.”
Jim’s thoughts on governance are based on diversity.
“We need to recognize organic production is different all over the country, and this will be a challenge when deciding how the money gets divided up. We must make sure that we have enough money to support the different types of production systems in each region and that it gets divided fairly.
The same goes for urban agriculture, the tribes and minorities who have typically been excluded from research and Farm Bill dollars. We need to make sure they all have a seat and a voice at the table.”
I asked what he thought of the new consumer messaging campaign unveiled at Expo West.
“It’s certainly shocking and startling to see all the inputs that are prohibited in organic. Yet there are so many positives about organic – I think we need to pitch those, too.
The message focuses just on inputs, and that’s a rabbit hole we don’t want to go down. Organic is not about input substitution; you have to have an ecological system. We have to be more holistic about our vision.
The fact is we have tried a 70-year experiment in chemical agriculture, and it has failed us. We have cheaper food, but it’s costing more to keep us alive, and the earth has been degraded. It’s time to invest in organic research and promotion to make sure that organic is advancing.”
The deadline to provide input on GRO Organic is April 30th, 2019. Please join Jim in sharing your big ideas. GRO needs your input.