How the bitter debate over a producer-funded organic "checkoff" program reveals a movement's growing pains—and the fault lines of American agriculture
The history of the organic movement has been marked by vigorous debate about the meaning of the word, which priorities matter most, and who gets to decide. From early arguments about closed-loop systems and off-farm inputs to more recent dust-ups over lawn waste and hydroponics, the term has always been a flashpoint for larger disputes about ethics, economics, and environmental stewardship. So it means a lot to say that the industry is facing the starkest, most bitterly divisive choice it has confronted since the acrimonious process, back in 2000, that led to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA)’s official certification standard.
The question? Whether there should be an organic “checkoff” —that is, a federally mandated research and promotion program that would serve, and be funded by, the entire industry. On April 19, USDA is expected to release the final ruling that will enshrine the organic checkoff’s structure and let stakeholders vote on whether to move forward. The date has already been pushed back once, thanks to the Trump Administration’s ongoing freeze on new federal regulations, so it’s not clear exactly how and when the vote will take place. But one thing is for sure: the prospect of an organic checkoff looks likely to inflame the battles that have long divided the organic movement, and turn them into a full-blown civil war.
For those who aren’t quite sure how checkoffs work, here’s a quick primer. In theory, these programs are a way for producers to band together, using their collective power to spur demand and increase sales. A single soybean farmer, say, can’t afford to advertise nationally, or sponsor research that helps to increase yields. But America’s soybean farmers pay a little each year into a mandatory checkoff program overseen by USDA and the United Soybean Board, and that allows the industry to pay for profit-boosting crop research and marketing spots on prime-time TV. Everyone sacrifices a little, the thinking goes, and everyone benefits. We pay taxes according to the same logic, and many farmers refer to checkoffs as what they essentially are—an industry-specific tax.