The Organic Trade Association wants the organic community to put on its thinking caps. On Monday, the trade group reached out to organic stakeholders and invited them to send in their biggest and brightest ideas on how best to collaboratively design and implement a voluntary industry-invested "check-off like" program for the organic sector.
Announcing the opening of a six-month period for interested parties to answer key questions on the private sector initiative known as "GRO Organic" (shorthand for Generate Results and Opportunity for Organic), the Organic Trade Association said "this is an important opportunity to weigh in and help shape this voluntary program at the start of the process."
The Organic Trade Association announced in September a plan to move forward with a voluntary private-sector funded program to promote the organic brand, raise funds for organic research and consumer education, and foster more organic agriculture in the United States. The trade association formed a Steering Committee to coordinate and lead the efforts. The official invitation for ideas from organic stakeholders is the next step in the two-track effort to develop a voluntary governance approach and also advance initiatives that will deliver immediate big wins for the organic sector.
"We want GRO Organic to be a bold and engaged opt-in program that pools resources from everyone who can contribute so that we can collectively address critical needs across the organic sector," said Laura Batcha, Executive Director and CEO of the Organic Trade Association. "The need for more investment in organic is widely agreed upon—how we solve for it is what we must now work together to determine."
"Given today's changing markets and government policies, it is imperative that the organic industry work together to support research, education and awareness of certified organic food. The GRO process gives us the opportunity to provide the additional support our industry needs to help grow our organic certified supply and demand," said Grant Lundberg, CEO of Lundberg Family Farms and member of the GRO Steering Committee.
Big ideas sought
The six-month period to submit ideas, modeled loosely on the advanced notice of proposed rulemaking format used by government agencies via the Federal Register, officially ends April 30, 2019. Contributors are asked to offer a "Big Idea" on how to develop innovative solutions and raise meaningful funding "to address the organic sector's most pressing needs: bringing new farmers into organic production and making sure existing farmers can stay in organic, increasing organic research, and educating the public about the benefits of organic." A set of strategic questions is provided, focusing on five specific concerns of a voluntary program: participation, funding, decision making, programming and general issues.
"We have a saying at Organic Valley – none of us is as smart as all of us," said Melissa Hughes, Chief Mission Officer and General Counsel of Organic Valley who also serves on the GRO Steering Committee. "By putting our heads together, and bringing our ideas to the table, the organic industry will continue to be at the center of the good food movement, driving change in agriculture for the health of consumers and the environment."
The Organic Trade Association submitted an application to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) in May 2015 to consider implementing a federally mandated organic check-off program. USDA in January 2017 officially proposed a nationwide organic check-off program, opening the process for public comments. In May 2018, over one year after the comment period closed, USDA terminated the rulemaking process without bringing the check-off vote to an industry referendum.
How to submit an idea and what's next
Contributors are required to file their submissions electronically. E-mails should be sent to GROideas@ota.com with the submissions embedded or attached. Name, location and business affiliation should be part of a submission. After the period to weigh-in closes, all responses shared with GROideas@ota.com will be organized and summarized for further conversation.
Big ideas already in the works
Over the summer of 2018, the organic industry pivoted quickly to set up GRO Organic as a voluntary program to do the work that the federal program might have done. There are now four prototype programs identified that will be launched in January to invest in critical needs and serve as proven projects for investment when a formal voluntary program rolls out.
The Organic Trade Association is joining forces with Organic Voices and the group's "It's Not Complicated" campaign to fund a national message drive to reduce the confusion about organic. The goal for the campaign is to raise a minimum of $1 million for each of the next two years.
In addition to the "It's Not Complicated" promotional campaign, other programs identified include: 1) conducting in-depth consumer research on the most effective ways to reinforce the organic brand; 2) advancing a portfolio of soil health and climate change research to fill in knowledge gaps and show the beneficial impacts of organic; and 3) providing necessary funding for more organic extension agents across the country.
For more information:
Organic Trade Association
444 N. Capitol St. NW, Suite 445A
Washington D.C. 20001