“Beef. It’s What’s for Dinner.”
“Pork. The Other White Meat.”
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-1980s, 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.
In 2001, tens of thousands of cattle ranchers signed a petition calling for a similar referendum over the beef checkoff. The USDA said the petition fell slightly short of the required signatures to initiate a referendum. Around the same time, cattle ranchers challenged the constitutionality of the mandatory assessment on cattle sales that funds the beef checkoff, taking the case all the way to the Supreme Court, which found that the checkoff was legal in 2005. The court’s decision allowed the checkoff to continue but did little to quell criticisms by farmers and ranchers that the mandatory fees they pay to their respective commodity checkoff programs actually benefit them or are responsibly managed.
Beef producers filed a lawsuit in 2012 against the beef checkoff, alleging that the program’s funds were being used to lobby politicians to pass legislation favorable to corporate agribusiness. The lawsuit was dropped, but indicates resentment among producers who feel the checkoffs do not represent their interests.
Checkoff research is often devoted to goals of big agribusiness interests, not projects that would help address the real needs of farmers or consumers. Rather than support research that could help reorient agriculture production to minimize the health and environmental impacts of food production, most commodity checkoff funding has gone towards marketing efforts to try to diminish critics of big agriculture (including organic and sustainable production and the local food movement).
The pork, beef, egg and soy checkoffs have aligned with corporate agribusiness to create the U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance, which clearly appears to be a front group to advance the agenda of industrial agriculture, including the use of genetically engineered (GE) crops.
The United Soybean Board pools its research dollars with corporate biotech companies like Monsanto, Bayer and Dow Agrosciences for projects that will likely benefit corporate seed companies, not farmers. Of the $62 million in checkoff research projects currently underway, less than one percent of funding has gone toward studying weed resistance to herbicides, a crucial problem for farmers. The Soy Board’s promotional activities also include the “Biotech University,” an effort to indoctrinate journalism students into taking a favorable view of genetic engineering.
A review of research grants from the pork checkoff reveal many grants given for odor control on factory farms, improved use of the controversial technology of irradiation in pork processing, and best ways to administer drugs to animals without leaving residues. The Pork Board has given more than 100 grants to study environmental odors, while dedicating relatively little attention to studying antibiotic resistance, a major public health problem and long-term issue that producers will face on their operations.
So if this is what checkoffs have to offer, organic farmers and consumers don’t need one.