by Marion Nestle
Jun 2 2013

Got marketing? Organics face quandary

My monthly, first Sunday, food matters column for the San Francisco Chronicle:

Q: I read that the new farm bill is going to establish a checkoff program for organics. What’s that? Is this good for organics?

A: As with everything in food politics, the answer depends on who you are. If you are a big producer of organic foods, it’s good news. If you are small, it may cost you more than it’s worth. And if all you want is to buy organic foods at a price you can afford, it could go either way.

Let’s start with the farm bill, which still has many hurdles to jump before it gets passed. The bill ties agricultural policy to food stamps (which take up 80 percent of the budget), favors large industrial farms over small, and only occasionally tosses in a token program to promote public health or environmental protection.

One such token is the organic checkoff. Both the Senate and House have amended the farm bill to permit organic producers and handlers to form a marketing and promotion program, commonly known as a checkoff.

Fee required

The way this works is that if the amendments survive, the bill passes and organic growers agree on the program – all iffy at the moment – the Department of Agriculture will require every producer and handler of certified organic foods to pay a fee per unit sale (the checkoff). The fees go into a common fund to be used for research and marketing of organic foods in general.

The USDA currently administers 19 checkoff programs. The best known are beef (“it’s what’s for dinner”), milk (“got milk?”) and eggs (“the incredible edible”). Others cover foods such as blueberries, Hass avocados, mangos, peanuts, popcorn and watermelon.

In these cases, the industry or its representatives voted for the programs. They are administered by the USDA but the industry pays for them.

Checkoff funds are allowed to be used for advertising, consumer education, foreign market development and research. They cannot be used for lobbying, although the distinction between promoting a product to consumers and extolling its virtues to lawmakers can be subtle.

The Organic Trade Association, which represents hundreds of organic producers but is dominated by the big ones, has lobbied for this program since 2010. The association is concerned that consumers cannot currently tell the difference between “natural,” a term that is unregulated, and “certified organic,” which is highly regulated, requires inspection and is more expensive to produce.

Mostly, the association wants to increase market share. Sales of organic foods in the United States have been growing by about 10 percent annually and reached $35 billion last year, but this amount is minuscule in comparison to total food sales. The growth potential of organic foods is enormous.

The congressional go-ahead is a triumph for the association, which convinced a majority of the Senate and House that the public wants the farm bill to support organics.

Opposing viewpoint

That many producers of conventional foods and their friends in Congress do not like organics is an understatement. They resent that consumers are willing to pay premium prices for organics. They consider organics to be a slap in the face – a personal assault on conventional agricultural practices.

They cite many reasons why the organic checkoff should not be allowed. For one thing, it is distinctly different from all other commodity checkoff programs – “organic” is a production process, not a food.

Because farmers are allowed to pay fees into only one checkoff program, the growers of organic blueberries would have to choose between the one for organics and the one for blueberries.

Questioning the cost

Critics of the entire concept of checkoff programs say all they do is increase food prices by passing the costs of promotion on to consumers.

Small organic producers and handlers are also leery. They object to having to pay fees for something that is not guaranteed to do them any good. Evidence for the benefits of checkoff programs is mixed. Some farmers benefit, while others do not.

And because checkoff funds are not allowed to be used for advertising that implies disparagement of other foods or production processes, small organic producers fear that marketing will focus exclusively on whether or not a product is certified and will be used to promote any organic product, including junk food. The rules will not allow promotion to focus on the benefits of organics to health or the environment.

Checkoffs are about marketing. They are not about health, sustainability, human welfare or any other value cherished by today’s food movement. Much as I favor organic over conventional production methods, I’m hoping organic producers will think carefully before approving a checkoff.

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  • Jeff

    How about a program by the USDA to promote eating of more vegetables. Then a program of educating the public of the science of conventional food production and what GMOs are and that both are as or more safe than many organics. Both would be more useful than promoting a program, organics, that doesn’t have a clear track record of improved environmental, health, or economic benefits.

  • M

    Add another amendment changing ‘organic’ to ‘conventional’ and ‘conventional’ to ‘modern’ or something. Why let organic have the progressive-sounding name, when in fact, it proudly avoids most modern agricultural technology, much of which could help organic farmers be even more sustainable?

  • FarmerJane

    I can only hope that organic checkoff promo materials will not be far removed from the farmers themselves. As I’ve watched the organic dairy companies tell the public that milk is full of antibiotics, that conventional milk is the product of farms who poison the land with pesticides and industrial sludge, that only organic dairy farmers are good to their cows….I have asked organic dairy farmers if they approve of these messages. To a person, their reply is “its the marketing department that says this, not us.”
    Agriculture is a continuum of practices. The constant “writing off” of farmers who are not certified organic is very divisive and misses the big picture. The big picture includes the thousands of farms who do their best to produce a quality product as best as they know how.
    For example, here in NY…we have some 7,200,000 acres of farmland. According to most recent stats I could find, only 3,500 of these acres are certified organic for crops (perhaps more since the figures I found of 2007). Of total cropland (that includes land for livestock), about 2.5% was certified organic. How about the farmers on the other 7,000,000 New York farmland acreage? Are we not healthy, sustainable, local, environmentally beneficial?

  • Michael Bulger


    Organic agriculture is actually on the cutting edge of the modern understanding of ecology and crop technology. By relying heavily on agroecological knowledge and crop selection, as well as a broader range of contemporary technologies, organic agriculture is able to survive and thrive. As a defined legal process, organic agriculture exhibits a greater concern for the unvalued or undervalued environmental, health, and energy costs of conventional agriculture.

    Agricultural and food safety techniques developed in contemporary times through the organic sector are viewed as so successful that they are being emulated and promoted within the conventional sector. In other words, organic is teaching conventional more than a little bit about the future of “modern” farming.

  • M

    Michael: I’m familiar with the NOP, and don’t understand what within the law mandates a profound investment in the environment. Much is standard practice in all agriculture. Otherwise, banning substances based on whether they’re “natural” or not seems like a poor/uncritical way to judge what is actually safe and effective.

    What’s stopping a conventional farmer from being a good farmer? And what within the NOP certifies a that an organic farm is exceptional?

    Does it stipulate that a sustainable water source must be used? i.e. not taxed aquifers in the dry states where organic thrives?

    That serial monoculture be avoided?

    That pesticide applications be limited? (to my knowledge all it says is that alternative methods have to be employed prior to spraying; in practice, that doesn’t strike me as particularly meaningful). And why limit oneself to archaic “natural” derivatives, many of which need to be applied at a far higher rate than many modern pesticides, and fall into the same low toxicity range?

    Where does all the manure come from? Organic dairies?

    Why should a sick cow deserve to die? (In reality, permanent removal from the organic herd after a single treatment for pneumonia/mastitis with antibiotics effectively means slaughter in a lot of cases–even if not the statistical norm, why should that ever be the case?)

    I’m all for sustainable agriculture, but that’s not what organic certifies. It’s a marketing program at heart, and little more than that.

    We’d be hard pressed to find even a slight majority of multigenerational farmers who have converted to organic and feel they’re any better than the people down the road just because they’re organic.

  • FarmerJane

    Will organic promo materials be more of the same with the same big players branding and cross-branding? How will this marketing return any greater share of the profits to the small organic farmer? We hear complaints all the time in the dairy checkoff program that the marketing emphasis is more on showing how great large scale is, leaving the small and mid-sized dairy farmers in the dust. We, the small and mid-sized farmers, both organic and conventional…need our own Chekhov.

  • Michael Bulger

    If you’re familiar with NOP and you are having trouble ascertaining what added levels of certification and restrictions require a more profound investment in the environment, then I suggest you try reading them again. I think the key term in this discussion is require.

    Conventional farming methods do not undergo the same level of scrutiny, and conventional farmers are not required to select the least damaging methods.

    An uncertified farm can indeed be more sustainable than a certified farm. But it’s up to the farmer to select what practices that will implement on their farm. Other than Organic certification, and absent of knowing the farmer personally, a consumer has no way of knowing whether a farmer used subtherapeutic levels of antibiotics, or chose a cheap-but-messy pest control strategy.

  • Library Spinster

    Some have it both ways. At a vendor at the Reading Terminal Market, I see signs saying that a basket of produce is from “Farm X Organic (Uncertified)”, while a nearby basket is from “Farm Y Certified Organic”.

  • M

    Michael, the more familiar I’ve become with the NOP, the more apparent it becomes that it’s mostly a marketing program, and little more.

    I’m curious what your definition of messy is when it comes to pesticide application. Having a large toolkit of modern chemicals to choose from, or only a small handful of–for the most part comparably toxic– “natural” chemicals?

    There’s nothing stopping an organic apple growing from using sulphur 25 times in a season. The NOP only says, “try your darndest to not have to use chemicals in the first place”, like any smart businessperson would try to, but it’s an inevitability, unless know you can sell buggy lettuce at the farmers market to diehard chemophobes.

    The same pests have to be killed on organic and conventional farms. Why would either farmer invest in a ‘messy’ solution and spend more money than they need to?

    That’s a baseless assumption to claim that either mode is subject to less scrutiny.