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By Patty Lovera
“Beef. It’s What’s for Dinner.” “Pork. The Other White Meat.” “Got Milk?” These well-known slogans are examples of advertising campaigns funded by commodity research and promotion programs, more commonly referred to as checkoff programs. The programs are overseen by USDA and run by organizations established to promote specific commodities (beef, pork, soybeans, eggs and milk) and commission research to produce and market that commodity. The funds to pay for these activities come from mandatory fees assessed on producers of the commodity. For example, every time a head of cattle is sold, $1 per head is collected for the beef checkoff program.
So does organic food need its own checkoff program? That’s a debate that’s raging right now in the organic community.
The farm bill being debated by Congress includes language that would allow USDA to create a checkoff program for organic products. The idea of creating an organic checkoff is controversial to say the least. Just like other commodity markets, every link of the organic food chain—purchasing, processing, distribution and retail—is increasingly dominated by a small number of large players. In organic, this includes conventional food companies like General Mills, Kraft and Cargill, which are now marketing organic foods.
The way checkoffs for other commodities work is that farmers pay into the fund but large food companies are largely in control of decisions on how to spend the money. So it’s understandable that many organic farmers are wary of such an arrangement where their dollars are being controlled by giant food processing companies.
Despite being created with the mission of helping improve farmers’ livelihoods and expand market opportunities, checkoff programs have failed to prevent decades of dramatic losses for family-scale farms in the U.S. For pork, the number of hog producers has dropped by close to 70 percent from 239,000 farms in the mid-1980’s to only 75,000 farms today, according to the most recent agricultural census. Two-thirds of dairy farms have disappeared since the mid-1980’s while the prices farmers received have dropped by as much as 25 percent. Since the mid-1980’s, the number of cattle slaughtered and the price of beef has flat lined, and there are nearly 15 percent fewer producers.
Many of the checkoffs were initiated in the 1980s, but by the mid-2000s close to half of all the checkoffs were facing legal challenges.
The majority of pork producers voted in a 2000 referendum to abolish the pork checkoff, though proponents were able to save the program through legal and political maneuvering. If other checkoff markets held similar referendums, they would likely also face resistance. Read the full article…