I was disappointed to read The Packer editorial board’s “Dump transitional organic program” on Dec. 28, and to see this distinguished publication’s lack of awareness of the pressures the organic sector is currently facing.
The Organic Trade Association is considering the proposal of a voluntary organic transitional certification program to the U.S. Department of Agriculture because the organic sector is at a critical juncture.
We must consider new ideas if we want organic to realize its full potential — for organic producers and organic consumers alike.
The facts are that, yes, consumer demand grows every year, and, yes, the organic market is a healthy market, providing good returns for producers and a wholesome and high-quality product for consumers.
But the facts are also that barely 1% of the farmland in the U.S. is certified organic.
Organic supply is not keeping up with organic demand. We need more organic acreage in this country.
We need more organic producers.
Choosing to go organic is not an easy decision.
Producers must go through a rigorous three-year transition period before their products can qualify under the USDA National Organic Program’s strict criteria as certified organic and carry the USDA-certified organic seal.
During this transition period, growers cannot use any synthetic pesticides or fertilizers, no GMO seeds. They must keep accurate records of their practices and must abide by all the other rules that officially protect the integrity of organic.
These transitioning growers are often largely on their own during this period, without extensive information and resource networks to help guide them.
Transitioning growers often face financial difficulties.
Their crop yields may be lower because their soil’s natural nutrients and fertility have been depleted by conventional farming practices.
They are not able to command the higher value for their crops because they are not yet certified organic.
This challenging transition period is frequently cited by conventional producers as the biggest obstacle to shifting to organic production.
The value of a transitional program to producers is multifaceted.
The program would be voluntary, but it would require that the participating producer registers with an organic certifier.
Working with a certifier at the beginning of the transition period — and being regularly inspected by those certifiers during that time — allows producers to set up record-keeping systems and production practices that they know will comply with organic regulations when they get to the end of the transition period.
It will help to prevent surprises, like applying a substance that the producer thought was allowed but really is prohibited.
Transitional verification could help producers more readily access USDA program support like the National Resource Conservation Service’s Environmental Quality Incentives Program contracts, technical assistance from the Farm Service Agency and adequate crop insurance.
Transitional certification would allow producers to develop more meaningful relationships with buyers during the transition period, so they can secure their market before organic certification.
Buyers and handlers of organic are eager for a program like this.
In fact, the impetus for this initiative first came from buyers looking to increase domestically grown organic supplies by sharing some of the risk of the transition period with producers.
Transitional certification will provide buyers additional assurance that producers are on an on-ramp to organic, which will help to establish a long-term assured organic supply.
The benefits of this program are designed to concentrate on the producer and the agricultural trade, not the consumer.
We are not proposing a new transition label, nor would we favor that.
Consumers trust the USDA organic label, and know the organic label represents adherence to the strictest regulations of any agricultural production system.
It is critical that more support be provided to growers who want to transition to organic in order to increase organic production in America, meet the consumer demand for organic and enable farmers to participate in profitable markets and improve their livelihoods.
The Packer editorial said this proposal is risky.
Viewing this program through the singular eyes of a consumer-facing approach ignores the significant barriers growers face when making the decision to transition to organic production. Ignoring those barriers, and the consequences of not removing them, is the real risk for organic.
Laura Batcha is CEO and executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based Organic Trade Association. For more information, contact Maggie McNeil, director of media relations, at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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