One of the major challenges that organic farmers face is the transition period in switching from a conventional farm to a certified organic farm. Under current USDA rules, the soil on a farm needs to be verified by an organic certifier that it has not been sprayed with toxic pesticides for the previous 36 months.
This presents a serious financial hurdle for farmers because they are essentially being asked to farm organically yet must sell their products in the marketplace at conventional prices for three years.
An excellent new program called the National Certified Transitional Program (NCTP), developed by the Organic Trade Association (OTA) and in partnership with the USDA, is seeking to make this transition period less burdensome for farmers, with the goal of getting more of them to switch to organic.
Already, there are a handful of organic certifiers around the country – QAI, CCOF, Oregon Tilth, EcoCert, Washington State Department of Agriculture – that offer “Transitional Organic” programs. The premise is to create enough demand in the marketplace where transitional organic products would receive premium pricing above conventional products, thereby incentivizing farmers to make the change.
The most well-known example came out last year when Kashi announced that its Dark Cocoa Karma Shredded Wheat Biscuits was the first food product to earn the QAI Certified Transitional certification and seal.
Yet, there are a few problems, or drawbacks, with these transitional organic programs run by organic certifiers.
None has the stamp of approval from the USDA, and they each have their own set of standards.
Most importantly, a lack of coordination with the USDA means that these transitional programs won’t reach scale or broad acceptance from the consumer on a national level. At the end of the day, consumer acceptance and awareness of the program is absolutely essential to drive the market.
HOW IT WORKS
Under the National Certified Transitional Program, a farm has to be chemical-free for 12 months before it can gain certification. Once it completes this initial 12 months and for the following two years, it must follow all organic farming standards – no synthetic pesticides, no GMOs, no sewage sludge, must manage the soil for biodiversity, crop rotation, etc. During this two-year period, the farm will be certified transitional organic.
Similar to existing organic standards, there will be three levels of certification with transitional organic products – Made with Transitional Ingredients (70% or more), Certified Transitional (95% or more), and 100% Certified Transitional (100%).
In order to prevent farms from constantly flipping in and out of the NCTP, a farm can only enroll in this program twice.
According to Nate Lewis, Farm Policy Director for the OTA, “it is expected that the certifiers who already have their own transitional programs in place will gain accreditation from the NCTP. For certifiers who do not currently have their own transitional program, adding the NCTP certification to their existing offerings will be a relatively easy process since they are already certifying farms to the organic standard.”
Due to the amount of red tape in getting such a program approved by the USDA and with a new administration taking over this month, the OTA wisely made the decision to make this a “producer only” program at this stage. This means that rules and standards have only been established for farmers.
Details about the consumer side of the program still need to be determined, and the OTA is now working with industry leaders to figure out what the accepted standards will be. For example, there is no agreed upon seal that producers can currently use on their packaging.
However, one phrase that these transitional organic products will never be able to use is “Transitional Organic”. “Organic” can be nowhere on the front of the packaging or in the seal because of organic regulations. If you look at QAI’s seal (right), the word “organic” is not in there.
One criticism that some people may have with the NCTP is that it is an “Organic Light” program and that it will dilute the value of USDA certified organic products. If consumers can purchase transitional organic products at a lower price, this will have an adverse effect on certified organic products.
I believe that this is a very flawed argument for several reasons.
First, the marketplace is practically non-existent for transitional organic products and will take many years, if not decades, for it to get to any type of scale. The U.S. organic market is currently $43 billion, so the transitional organic market would have to be hundreds of millions, possibly billions, before it had any significant impact on the certified organic market.
Second, due to the fact that farms will only be selling certified transitional organic products for two years (after two years, they’ll move into the certified organic category), this creates major supply chain issues.
Food manufacturers are going to be in a constant search for transitional organic ingredients since each farm will only be able to supply raw product for two years. Furthermore, for products that contain 5 or more ingredients, it will be a major headache finding 5 or more suppliers of transitional organic ingredients, especially since these suppliers will only be around for two years.
Third, since transitional organic products cannot use the word “organic” on the seal, gaining widespread adoption among consumers is going to be an uphill battle. It is going to require companies like Whole Foods Market, Costco, Natural Grocers or Thrive Market to educate their customers about transitional organic products. Serious buy-in from retailers will be critical.
Where I do think there will be a market for transitional organic product is in single ingredient products, such as whole fruits/vegetables or products that contain 3 or fewer ingredients. The easier it is to manage the supply chain, the easier it will be to market these products to consumers.
Overall, I think that this NCTP is an excellent development and will help increase the amount of organic acreage in our country. Anything that can encourage more farmers to switch to organic is a positive because as it stands right now, the U.S. has less than 1% of its farmland as organic while organic comprises about 5% of the overall food market.
This means that a majority of the organic food that we are consuming today is being grown in other countries.
Needless to say, we need to be growing much, much more organic in the U.S., and the NCTP is going to encourage that. Big kudos to the OTA for helping to make this happen.