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Is It Time for an Organic Check-off Program?

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First the Stanford study. Now a study published in the most recent issue of Pediatrics, the journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics, has found that organic foods are no more nutritious than conventional products.

As mentioned in a prior post written after the Stanford report, organic isn’t about nutrition; that is, the added nutrients that organic products contain. This idea of organic nutrition has been driven by consumer misconceptions gleaned from packaging, advertising and a set of expectations built on a tradition of buying and consuming fortified, processed and added-to products.

Unlike most other foods in the American pantry, organic is about what products don’t have: pesticides, GMOs, hormones, and the like. They do not alter the soil and do no harm to the environment.

With so much at stake, it’s time for the organic industry to band together to push this critical message across to shoppers. The outcry over the findings of the two studies should provide much-needed momentum to a new proposal to create a research and promotion order for organic foods.

“We have a long way to go,” Christine Bushway, CEO and executive director of the Organic Trade Association told me in an interview today. “[The Pediatrics researchers] found they couldn’t see a distinct nutritional benefit, and that’s what played out in the media.”

The OTA is spearheading the effort to create an organic check-off program, which could provide up to $30 million a year for advertising, education and research. Given the status of the economy, the lack of a Farm Bill and other government funding support, it’s time for the industry to step in and pay a penny per hundredweight so that organic’s true benefits can be codified and standardized in a way that breaks through the clutter of studies, counterpoints, advertisements and op-ed pieces.

“The situation is such that the industry is growing but it doesn’t have a mechanism to really promote its products,” notes Bushway. “We need a pool of funds that will allow us to promote what organic delivers.”

The OTA is in the process of hosting town hall meetings to guage the reaction of industry stakeholders. Currently there are 19 or so federal marketing orders for agricultural products, ranging from pork (The Other White Meat) to watermelon. Indeed, organic hog producers and organic watermelon growers participate in those check-off programs, even though oftentimes, the marketing materials make no mention about organic. Launching a cross-category check-off specifically devoted to organic food would help ensure whatever money these farmers, producers and manufacturers are forking over would at least go to promote the premium aspect of the products they bring to the shelf.

The organic food industry is now worth nearly $30 billion dollars, and has grown an average of 10% or more a year since the USDA’s National Organic Standard took effect 10 years ago this very month. Yet in reality, certified organic represents a measly 4% of total food sales; the amount of land devoted to organic farming is even less than that.

A focused message, supported by all organic stakeholders, is perhaps one of the most cost-efficient ways to boost those numbers.

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