The organic movement is in dire need of funding for consumer education to promote the benefits of organic and research to grow the domestic supply. National Co+op Grocers (NCG) has been working behind the scenes taking an advocacy role on behalf of its food co-op owners and organic producers.
Organic food sales continue to grow exponentially due to the hard work of co-ops and others who view organic as the gold standard of food labels and sustainable agriculture. In 2014, organic food represented $40 billion in sales, and nearly 80 percent of households purchased organic products. With this growth, the organic industry faces new pressures regarding supply and demand. Food co-ops are not immune to the challenges of meeting this market.
Despite the impressive sales figures, customer confusion regarding food labeling continues to be widespread, with many consumers mistakenly viewing the unregulated label “natural” as equal or superior to USDA Certified Organic. At the same time, organic supply hasn’t kept up with consumer demand. Just one percent of U.S. farmland is in organic production, and over the past three years, domestic organic acreage has been decreasing. If this downward trend continues, the U.S. will reach a tipping point of importing more organic than it grows domestically, which is antithetical to the vision of organic’s pioneers—many of whom were co-ops—for sustainability.
In the past, a handful of mission-driven businesses, including National Co+op Grocers (NCG) and many other partners, have shouldered the responsibility of funding programs that benefit the entire industry. However, as more businesses enter the organic marketplace, it will be increasingly important that everyone who profits from organics be required to reinvest in the system. While (NCG) and its partners succeeded in securing additional federal funding for organic programs during the last farm bill cycle, many predict that organic agriculture is entering a prolonged era of evaporating federal funding.
That’s why NCG supports GRO Organic on behalf of organic producers, which would be a “self-help” mechanism for the organic industry to reinvest in organic research and promotion. For the last three years, NCG CEO Robynn Shrader has served on the steering committee for the GRO Organic project, for which the Organic Trade Association (OTA) has provided both leadership and financial backing needed to submit the proposal to USDA.
“This is a critical time for the organic community to exercise self-determination in the face of shrinking federal funding and domestic production,” said Shrader. “Having participated on the steering committee for several years, I can attest that our process was very iterative, taking into account feedback from the entire community in order to create a fair framework, and I feel confident that the GRO Organic proposal that is on the table should be given strong consideration by all stakeholders.”
After OTA submits the GRO Organic proposal to USDA this spring, the agency will post the proposal for public comment. USDA will take public comments, then draft a final proposal which will be put to a referendum in which anyone who would be assessed will be able to vote on whether or not GRO Organic should be established. These steps are anticipated to take place over the coming year. If the vote passes, approximately $30 million dollars would be generated annually for research and promotions, benefiting the whole organic community.