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Part 9: Demand for organic foods during the early years of the movement reflected a decidedly vegetarian bias. Countless sacks of organic brown rice and whole wheat flour were divvied up in hole-in-the wall natural food stores and co-ops while table grapes grown without pesticides and Alar-free apples enticed consumers like today’s Smart phones, albeit in smaller numbers. The certification of organic livestock didn’t come into its own until the early 1990s after a national if modest-sized market for other certified foods was already in place.
Once widely available, organic dairy including milk and yogurt quickly became among the most prominent and profitable certified foods. The demand for organic eggs and chicken is now growing rapidly as they appear on the shelves of mass market grocers where certified dairy is already established. Despite this significant acceptance by consumers, there are widely held concerns that livestock certification standards have sacrificed organic principles in favor of rapid growth in market share. Critics contend that organic livestock farms have been allowed to grow much too large and while the animals raised there may receive organic feed, their overall quality of life differs little from the animals trapped in conventional confinement operations.
This installment in our history of organic agriculture will explore the challenges and contradictions of setting livestock standards using the scandalous abuse of the requirements for pasture to illustrate the very real limitations of organic certification.
Any consideration of livestock’s role in organic agriculture must begin by acknowledging the visionary contributions of Sir Albert Howard and his first and second wives, Gabrielle and Louise (two great women behind this great man). Acknowledging Nature as the first and foremost agriculturalist, the Howards recognized the essential role of animals in recycling nutrients and observed that “Mother earth never attempts to farm without livestock.” They were alarmed by the declining soil fertility experienced in European agriculture as synthetic fertilizers came to replace the traditional use of manure. They also noted how successfully the peasant farmers of Asia preserved the fertility of their small, intensively managed fields for millennia by composting and returning livestock manure, including their own.
The Howards’ life work served to establish the skillful integration of crop and livestock production as the foundation of organic soil fertility and pest management. While non-manure cropping systems continue to be certified organic and can be highly productive, the long term success of these systems remains untested. An earlier installment of this series, Organic Agriculture: It’s Origins, and Evolution Over Time delves further into the monumental contributions made by Sir Albert, Gabrielle and Louise Howard to elucidating and articulating the principles of organic management.
Let’s return to examining the dynamics of contemporary organic livestock certification and specifically the challenge of establishing and enforcing production standards that balance the biological and economic considerations involved in raising domesticated livestock profitably. Scale has never been a significant limiting factor in organic fruit, vegetable and grain production in the sense that crop standards are adaptable to farms of widely divergent sizes. As long as proper rotational practices are maintained, organic crop standards can accommodate your local CSA’s quarter acre plot of heirloom tomatoes or a one hundred acre field of a standard canning variety grown in California’s Central Valley.
This flexibility is not at all the case with organic livestock standards which must delineate requirements for the animals’ feed ration, living conditions and health care. These provisions are intimately connected to the number of animals a farm can successfully maintain and that number largely determines the farm’s economic potential. There has always been pressure for organic livestock standards to accommodate larger farms because the scale of animal production is inseparable from commercial viability – you don’t find part-time dairy farmers (unless you count those working off-farm jobs to pay their bills). One can detect the economic temptation pushing towards more industrial and less pastoral organic livestock standards when studying how the connection between dairy cows and the pasture they thrive best on has changed over time.
Organic fluid milk production surged during the 1990s, in part due to the introduction of genetically engineered recombinant bovine growth hormone (rBGH) which was widely used on conventional milking herds to increase production. Consumers have always associated organic products with purity and since conventional dairy labels rarely indicated whether or not the milk came from cows treated with rBGH, certification became a de facto protection against residues of the synthetic hormone. Considerations of animal welfare, and especially the belief that organic dairy cows spent lengthy intervals grazing on pasture, were equally important in driving consumers to organic dairy alternatives.
Many small and medium-sized family dairy farms with between forty and one hundred and more cows transitioned to organic production during this period, most successfully through the Organic Valley cooperative of Wisconsin. A start-up called Horizon Dairy grew even faster by augmenting its purchases from family dairy farms with milk from an expansive facility it built in Idaho which housed several thousand cows. This mega-dairy complied with all private and subsequently federal standards for livestock feed and health care – all organic forages and grains and no antibiotics, rBGH or other synthetic hormones and prohibited drugs – but its cows spent considerably less time outdoors, and little if any time actually grazing. Some in the organic community rationalized the mega-dairy model as simply “bringing the feed to the cows rather than the cows to the feed” and such operations certainly can produce high volume, low cost milk when compared to the more decentralized and labor-intensive pasture model.
The co-existence of the mega- and family dairy models survived the advent of the USDA organic certification program in 2000 because the federal standards established a rather listless “access to pasture” requirement for all certified ruminants, including cows. With the incoming Bush USDA thoroughly disinterested in applying energy or resources to the organic certification program it inherited, the state and private sector certifying agents exercised considerable discretion to interpret and enforce the federal standard. (See The Waste Land: Organic Agriculture During the Bush Years for a fuller description of this era). It’s said that in America nothing succeeds like excess, and soon mega-dairies housing upwards of eight to ten thousand milk cows sprouted up like mushrooms across several Western states. This extremely low cost organic milk was primarily funneled into the private label store brands that mass market grocers introduced as well as high priced, value added products such as organic ice cream.
Thanks in large part to the persistent muckraking of the non-profit Cornucopia Institute, the USDA began cracking down on the flagrant abuses among the mega-dairies in 2005. Aurora Dairy, the country’s largest provider of private label dairy products, signed a consent decree with USDA to reduce the size of its Aurora, CO dairy from 4,400 cows to 800 while simultaneously establishing pasture on its former feedlots. Several other mega-dairies either lost their certification or were severely downsized and in 2009 USDA implemented a new requirement establishing a minimum amount of time and feed that dairy cows must receive from pasture.
Surprisingly, the negative publicity surrounding the Aurora consent decree and other mega-dairy abuses did little to slow consumer demand for organic milk, which flattened out briefly during the downturn of 2009 but has bounced back to eclipse its previous levels. However, the USDA’s corrective measures have not gone nearly far enough towards correcting the imbalances caused by the co-existence of pasture and mega-diary operations. In 2011, Texas ranked as the second largest organic dairy producing state in America with eight dairies (yes, eight) producing nearly three times the volume and dollar value of the organic milk produced by the 180 certified dairies in Vermont. Unbelievably, the USDA is also dragging its feet on a second abuse of regulatory language that the mega-dairies are exploiting to bring new, non-organic replacement cows into production. Does it sound as if the USDA has effectively reversed the slippery slope towards industrialized organic dairy production?
While many see the nearly 2,000 certified dairies in the Unites States as indicative of organic agriculture’s success, there are clear signals that the economics are not likely to save many family farms over the long term. Many family dairy farmers face through-the-roof feed prices this winter following last summer’s drought and they have virtually no leverage to secure a price that reflects their true cost of production. The price they receive is in the hands of the two national remaining national buyers (Organic Valley and Horizon), the retailers who operate on razor thin margins and consumers who see the low cost private label alternative sitting next to the branded product. The tragic irony behind demand for organic milk being at an all-time high is that many certified family dairy farmers who pioneered its production can no longer survive on the price which that thriving market will pay.
The challenges of crafting certification standards that respect organic integrity while both enabling farmers to achieve commercial scale and preserving strong consumer confidence has proven to be a tricky juggling act for dairy farmers. As organic certification has matured into a multi-billion dollar internal market, concessions have inevitably crept into the standards which conflict with the underlying principles of organic agriculture. Mother earth is not inclined to bring feed to the cows, but there are clear reasons why farmers, whether they milk fifty or five thousand head, choose to do so.
How far can the gap between organic agriculture and organic certification become and still preserve a meaningful degree of difference from conventional production? Our next installment in this series will examine how similar production and marketing dynamics have affected the development of organic poultry production.
To read other posts from this 11-part organic history series
Mark Keating has worked in the natural, sustainable, organic and local food movements since 1982. His work experience includes stints in commercial food service, farm labor, retail sales and marketing, state and federal civil service, non-profit advocacy and academia. While working for the USDA National Organic Program between 1999 and 2002 Mark helped draft the national organic standards for crop and livestock production. He spent two more years with the USDA Marketing Services Branch working to develop and promote farmers markets. Mark also worked for the NOP in 2010. An inveterate believer that naturally raised and locally distributed food offers the best opportunity for human health and planetary survival, Mark lives in the Kentucky Bluegrass with his wife and their daughter.