OTA/Corporate Interests Creating “Trojan Horse” to Soften Image,
In a move that would look just as cynical as if General Motors decided to create their own workers-union, the powerful Organic Trade Association (OTA) has created their own Farmer Advisory Council and is now discounting memberships to smaller family farmers in an attempt to soften their current image as a hard-knuckled corporate lobby group.
Over the past few years the OTA has received increasing criticism for their lobby efforts that have allegedly helped water down the federal standards governing organic farming and food production. The latest dustup in Washington surrounding OTA activities concerns their attempt to sell Congress, and the organic farming community, on a scheme that will tax farmers and other industry participants to do research and promotional work.
“Trying to recruit farmers is an attempt by the OTA to redeem their damaged credibility and sell their agenda on Capitol Hill,” said Mark A. Kastel, Codirector at The Cornucopia Institute. “The agribusiness lobby is also attempting to dilute the influence of nonprofit groups and cooperatives that legitimately represent the interests of family-scale farmers — and frequently differ with the OTA on regulatory policy.”
Over the past two years the OTA has run into a buzzsaw of opposition from farmers, and the groups that represent them, after proposing a commodity checkoff that would create an estimated $40 million per year. “Farmers are understandably skeptical about being forced to pay into such a fund because of a long history of corruption, mismanagement and lack of effectiveness in existing checkoff programs showcasing milk mustaches, ‘incredible edible eggs,’ and ‘the other white meat’ (pork),” Kastel said.
The OTA is held in low esteem by many farmers and organic food advocates because of their past history and alleged duplicity in dealing with other interests in the organic food movement.
“This move is consistent with a long pattern of agribusiness executives treating family farmers as ignorant and naïve,” said Richard Parrott, a Buhl, Idaho organic beef and crop producer who has been certified since 1992. “Why should farmers trust corporations that buy organic commodities from factory farms, and have pitted U.S. farmers, like me, against Chinese exports, when they tell us they are looking out for our interests?”
One of the crops Parrott produces is dried beans, an organic commodity that has been dominated by imports for a number of years.
The trade-lobby group is also looked at as a major political force behind recent highly controversial moves at the USDA that significantly water down the independent power of the National Organic Standards Board, an expert advisory panel Congress set up to protect organic rulemaking from undue corporate influence.
When the OTA started out, during the 1980s as the Organic Foods Production Association of North America (OFPANA), the organization was widely recognized as an umbrella group with many farmers, organic certifiers, nonprofits and processors (all of which, at the time, were independently owned). Since then, the OTA has morphed into what The Cornucopia Institute calls “just another powerful, trade-lobby group funded and controlled by multibillion-dollar, multinational food corporations.”
The OTA is now controlled and funded by large corporate agribusinesses such as Smucker’s, General Mills, Hershey and Kellogg’s. Unlike the majority of organic farmers, many of the most active and influential members of the OTA earn the majority of their revenue selling non-organic food.
In recent years, there have been virtually no working farmers as OTA members (other than a few that are affiliated with the corporate participants), and a large percentage of the nonprofits were given, unsolicited, free memberships.
“When they doubled their dues a few years ago they lost most of their farmers and other individual members,” added Kastel. OTA membership now costs between hundreds of dollars a year to $35,000 per year, on a sliding scale (and many corporate members make additional contributions in the tens of thousands of dollars).
The OTA just created a new class of membership, with $50 a year dues, for small farmers with gross annual revenue of under $250,000. The farmers also have to be members of one of the organizations represented on the OTA’s Farmer Advisory Council.
Smaller farmers as OTA members would be in stark contrast to existing members such as Aurora Organic Dairy, a giant vertically-integrated operation with a number of facilities in Texas and Colorado milking thousands of cows each. Aurora was found by USDA investigators to have been “willfully” violating organic standards, one of the largest scandals in the industry’s history, but they continued as OTA members and Aurora executives even subsequently served as spokespersons for the group.
“It’s a bit Orwellian, to say the least, that their Advisory Council is made up of not only farmers, most of whom are board members or have some direct relationship with organic businesses, but also includes executives of vertically integrated agricultural operations owning hundreds of thousands of animals,” said Darin Von Ruden, a Westby, Wisconsin organic dairyman and president of the Wisconsin Farmers Union, an organization that has spent the better part of the last century fighting consolidation and the corporate takeover of our nation’s farming sector.
Cornucopia, a 10,000-member, nonprofit, farm policy research group characterized the lobby group’s recent public relations push as “a not-so-veiled attempt by the OTA to greenwash their corporate approach to organics.”
“OTA’s job is to represent business; it pays lip service to respecting and supporting family farmers. But when it comes down to truly respecting our opinions, on issues of organic integrity or ones that affect our livelihood as farmers, they obviously intend to push their agenda by creating what smells like a Trojan Horse of a grassroots group ,” Parrott lamented.
“So we have corporate executives, corporate lawyers and corporate lobbyists (with companies that buy agricultural commodities from farmers) now representing producers? Or are they just having a problem convincing rank-and-file farmers that their $40 million a year checkoff (tax) is legitimate?” Cornucopia’s Kastel cynically asked.
After the Arthur Harvey federal lawsuit ruling, the organic community negotiated amongst different organic organizations with the goal of approaching Congress in a unified manner to request legislation that would “dial back to pre-Harvey.”
The Harvey decision made all synthetics illegal in organic farming and food production (and most of us in the community, at the time, felt comfortable with the NOSB process of carefully reviewing non-organic substances to assure they were safe and appropriate for use in organics). If the Harvey ruling had stood, a high percentage of certified organic, processed food would leave the market.
“The OTA participated in these discussions, said they would collaborate, and then, behind everyone’s back, went to Congress and sold their own deal — which was adopted by Congress and weakened the law rather than simply restoring the way the NOP/NOSB had been operating,” said Kastel.