Proposed US organic checkoff comment period nears close

By Aerin Einstein-Curtis

- Last updated on GMT

© iStock
© iStock

Related tags Organic food

The time window to offer comments on the proposed US organic checkoff is closing, leaving reviewers seven days to share their thoughts.

The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) has been collecting comments​ on the Organic Research, Promotion and Information order proposed rule since January, said the Organic Trade Association (OTA), which has been calling for stakeholders to share their thoughts on the project.

The proposed measure has seen support from several members of the organic feed industry and some organic producers groups, said the OTA.  

The association has been supporting the proposed checkoff to address several challenges that face the organic industry in the US, said Laura Batcha, CEO and executive director of the OTA. The topics include outreach and public education.

“The consumer does not always understand what the organic seal offers them [compared to] other unregulated claims like natural,”​ she told FeedNavigator. Other issues include a lack of funding to support research for organic production and industry priorities, and improving ways to spread information and technical assistance to producers, ​she added.

The proposed checkoff program was designed so that 50 to 75% of the funds collected would be used for research into improving organic production, she said.

Checkoff details

The current proposed rule would include producers, certified handlers and importers that made or imported more than $250,000 in a marketing year from work with certified organic agricultural commodities, said the USDA. They would pay one-tenth of one percent of net organic sales into the system.

Producers, importers or handlers that did not bring in that amount would be able to pay into the program voluntarily, the department said.

The purpose of the checkoff program is to develop and fund a program for research, industry information and consumer education along with efforts to keep and expand the current market for organic products, according to the proposal.

Once the comments are reviewed, the USDA has several options including adjusting the proposal and putting it back out for additional input or the topic could be brought to a vote to determine the amount of support the project has, said Batcha.

“There are a lot of comments already, and I expect more, so it will take them time [to review them],”​ she said. “If we could get to referendum in late 2017 or early 2018 that would be great, but these things do take time.”

Addressing research gaps and imports

The proposed checkoff program is one way to raise financial support for organic research, said Batcha.

Some of the research priorities of interest to organic producers include work on pest management for insects, fungi and weed, she said. “Compliance protocols for managing invasive species and insect pests are also noted high on the list,” ​she added.

Research also could cover plant seed breeding and animal breed trials, she said. “Because of the lack of chemical inputs, the seeds need to be bred with more robust disease resistance,”​ she added.

Additionally, there would be interest in economic research considering crop rotation cycles for the optimal production of feed grains, said Batcha. “And, the economics [of] profitability and transition – what are the choices that are made during the transition period that determine how long it takes you to reach profitability? So people can plan for that and make good choices,”​ she added.

Thus far, the organic world has been growing outside of government support, said Lynn Clarkson, founder and owner of Clarkson Grain Company. But, the community has been struggling to complete research because funding is limited.

“I would like to see an independent source of money so we’re not dependent on Congress,” ​he told us.

Supporting research and the development and spread of best practices for organic feed grain producers could bring new farmers into organics and reduce the current reliance on imported feed grains, he said. The US continues to import a large portion of the organic corn and soybeans needed to make organic feed.

At the moment, if a major animal producer wanted to start an organic line and needed to know in advance that their feed needs would be met, they would likely rely on imported feed ingredients, he said. However, there continue to be concerns about the validity of imported organic grains.

“It’s important that the US develop more of its own production,” ​he said. “I think the buyer would be very friendly to a domestic production label.”

Additionally, the change to organic production can be intimidating for farmers who may need to reduce reliance on chemical inputs and face a multi-year transition period before they can complete the certification process, said Clarkson. “There would be a lot more farmers willing if they didn’t fear they would be losing money during the transition,”​ he added.

“There’s nothing really convenient about organic, you can’t sell it on every street corner, nor can you hedge it – it doesn’t have a correlation, it is its own supply-demand curve, and it moves differently and you leave your third-party support on fertilizers behind and that’s frightening,” ​he said. “It puts the farmer in a situation of more isolated responsibility for what going on on his farm, and it limits his number of tools to fight disease or insect attacks.”

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