( The Packer staff )

The U.S. Department of Agriculture pulled the plug on the proposed organic marketing board before the drama of a referendum could unfold.

In so doing, has the agency turned back the momentum of the organic movement?

A 3-month public comment period that ended in April 2017 garnered more than 14,700 comments, according to a USDA news release.

The USDA cited specific concerns expressed in those comments, which led to its decision to not pursue the program:

  • A majority of organic growers in the U.S., earning less than $250,000 a year, would be exempt;
  • How organic promotion would affect other commodities;
  • The method of assessing imports, and tracing imported products;
  • The financial burden on small producers;
  • The burdens of paperwork; and
  • The methodology used in voting.

Was the decision fair? Why not test the true support for the organic marketing board with a referendum?

A statement by the Organic Trade Association cast the USDA as unwilling to embrace the growth of organic agriculture. The group said the USDA’s action to terminate the rulemaking process to establish a national research and promotion program for organic “reflects a pattern of holding back forward progress on organic by USDA.” 

Saying the $50 billion organic sector offers opportunities for U.S. organic farmers, “it makes no sense that the agency is continuing to take steps to cut it off at the knees.”

“This announcement comes within days of a smiley face GMO disclosure logo, which is bound to cause confusion for consumers and reveals that USDA is not being even-handed,” Laura Batcha, CEO and executive director of the Organic Trade Association, said in the release.

Batcha said the association was certain about the quality of the proposal, which she said was crafted over the course of five years.

“We submitted comments with 1,358 public endorsers named, including over 1,230 certified organic operators,” she wrote. 

She called it “unfathomable” that organic stakeholders will not be given the chance to cast their vote and decide for themselves regarding the checkoff.

The USDA decision to end the quest for a national organic marketing board will resonate for several years. In my opinion, even though the debate would have been messy, the market would have been served by a referendum. Without the clout of industry assessments, it will be difficult for organic marketers to have a substantial message about the value of organic certification.

How will the consumer value the USDA organic seal in coming years, given that the confusing labeling of food with “free from” labels will only increase? “Non-GMO” seems to have emerged as a competing label, which surely must frustrate organic operators.

The USDA has put the brakes on the national organic checkoff, and also may have pumped the brakes on consumer momentum toward organic food.

Tom Karst is The Packer’s national editor. E-mail him at [email protected].