Once a customer has moved passed the produce section of the grocery store and moved towards the side and rear of the facility, they are looking at the prepared foods, meat, dairy, poultry, fish and eggs sections (the order in which these sections are arranged depends on the individual store). I’m going to exclude fish in this writing, and will come back to farm raised vs. wild fish in a separate article (spoiler: wild fish are going to be organic, farm raised, probably not).
To my mind, dairy is the most prominent member of this list for organic considerations, and it deserves the most attention. We’ll see that issues involving beef or meat fit nicely into the dynamic of organic versus conventional milk anyways.
For me, animal husbandry is the single most important part of the food production process, both because it is the system with the worst design and because as a result, it is the most destructive environmentally (corn is going to be up in the top five in both categories, but it probably less destructive on the whole). Pollution of the waterways and Ocean Acidification, climate change, local pollution and noxious odors, you name it, and large scale animal farming contributes very seriously to these issues.
On a well-run vegetable and animal farming operation, animals and plants are balanced to the system, providing healthy sources of nutrients and cycling between the systems, and fostering a complex and diverse system, which should allow farmers to make a living. However, this style of idyllic farming is incredibly time and labor intensive, and a farming family is not going to make a fortune in this manner, even if their land is well suited for the practice and they have enough capital to invest in establishing the operation. More likely is that the children of the farmers are going to grow up in that lifestyle and conclude that the effort isn’t worth it compared to the life of their non-farming contemporaries. If that farming family is lucky, the land itself might one day be valuable enough to provide financial security to future generations, but that would involve selling the land to a developer.
If you find such an operation in the rural areas of America or at a farm market stand, they are going to be a relatively small farming operation, and what they are selling, whether certified organic or not, is the closest thing to the true spirit of organics as was originally intended when the concept of organic agriculture was conceived of 40 plus years ago.
Little to none of that kind of milk is ever going to make it to a chain grocery store. Instead, very large industrial farms throughout the country raise and rear huge numbers of cows on animal only operations to keep the milk flowing so that there is always a carton or gallon waiting on the shelf for any and all customers, and that the milk is inexpensive. The documentation of abuse and mistreatment in these facilities are all over the internet, and I’m not interested in rehashing the worst of it at this time, but we do need to establish a context to understanding what organic does and does not mean when you purchase milk. The same will be true for eggs when we get there, as chickens are raised in similar fashion.
In order to produce milk, cows must be kept in an annual state of impregnation, and milked often enough to maximize the milk produced in their bodies while also delicately enough to keep them relatively safe and healthy (read also, alive). Really sophisticated farms use robotics and computers to constantly track production records for each animal and monitor their “herd” by volume of milk produced on a daily basis (think bar coding on the tags, sensors for recording the amount of milk extracted and a spreadsheet report for each animal with a chart and graph). The less sophisticated operations presumably have some kind of system for monitoring their animals, but it might be more informal, and rely on some pen and paper record keeping. In either case, the proprietors know which animals produce well and which do not produce well over time. At that point, performance-enhancing drugs can be administered to boost production in poor performers, or to increase the overall production of the group a farm has. When the animals inevitably become ill in this highly intensive and unnatural situation, medicines are administered. When consumers purchase hormone-free or antibiotic-free milk, what they buying is milk where that part of the process is eliminated. The prohibitions on using hormones and antibiotics lowers the potential output of milk domestically, and thus is going to lead to price increases overall for the organic milk.
When I was studying sustainable agriculture a little over a decade ago, it was well discussed that the biggest organic milk producers (Stoneyfield, Horizon and the private label organics) were raising their animals to the letter of the law (rumored at the time to be one hour of outdoor pasturing per day), and otherwise, they were basically running conventional dairying operations minus the hormones and antibiotics, and using organic feed.
Sometime after I graduated from college, the organic regulations were expanded, and now depending on the location of the farm, up to 30% of the animals feeding must be in the form of outdoor grazing. I feel comfortable speculating with near certainty that whatever the regulations are, the largest organic dairy producers are complying with them to the minimum standard allowable in some or most cases. If 30% grazing is require, those animals are seeing 30-31% grazing time, if its 40%, the animals are seeing 40-41% grazing times.
As I have stated previously, most consumers purchase organics because of a perception that those products are healthier or more nutritious that their conventional counter parts. Personally, I purchase high priced milk that is labeled local and hormone free, and I recommend others do that as well, mainly because I view the hormones as the biggest potential risk to myself my family and others. As far as nutrients go, I’m very doubtful there’s a big enough difference between organic and conventional milk to justify the added expense, but milk comes out of an animal’s body, and if that animal is raised in really poor conditions, you are drinking that abuse. For me the difference between high-price milk and really cheap milk is like drinking water from the tap versus water out of puddle in my driveway. The tap water is by no means pure, but the water on my driveway is worse no matter what.
What is more concerning than quality to me is what a given dairy operation does with the manure produced by their animals. While grazing is of paramount importance for the health of a cow (or any grazing animal), almost as important is that the grass and reabsorbed the animal waste into the environment in a sustainable and beneficial way. At this point, I want to note that if you as the reader are unclear about what a manure lagoon is, then I can tell you that it is what it sounds like. A concrete bottomed pond full of cow shit, which is then pumped onto fields as a fertilizer source for the corn or soy they are going to plant. Not only is it dangerous for our food supply, but it is doubly disturbing due to the fact that animal manure runoff is highly toxic and is likely one of the reasons that dangerous algal blooms hit waterways, like what is being experienced in Lake Erie each year.
Now imagine a farm that has 5000 cow, 500 of which are organic, meaning that they are kept in a different section of the holding pen, and fed different feed each day, and they are moved out into a grassland across the street 30-40% of the time. Those 500 cows and their manure will still be collected in a manure lagoon for the 60-70% of the time they are indoors, and their organic shit will cause as much damage as the other 4500 heads of cattle. The corn and soy grown on this imagined farm is likely to be bioengineered (GMO), and as long as the farm has records proving that the GMO feed did not go their organically raised herd, and that the hormones and antibiotics they used did not get administered to the “organic cows,” the consumer will be under the impression that the organic milk is raised in a completely different setting than conventional cows.
Eggs, although they are produced under different processes, and in different farming operations, have much the same concerns. Feed, antibiotics and hormones are key metrics of organics, not well being, nutrition and environmentalism, regardless of what your egg carton tells you. The consolidation of the egg industry nearly guarantees that unless you are buying eggs from a farmer’s market from an operation that collects eggs from birds that have an outdoor coup, you are buying eggs that you would very much not like to see the condition in which it was produced.
With meat, all the issues mentioned above apply, except you are expanding the range of animals that might be processed. Duck, pig, turkey, bison, deer. A common warning letter issued by the FDA for veal is to farm owners who sell veal calves with illegally high levels of antibiotics in the tested animal (I’m not an expert on this type of testing, so I’m not sure if they are testing a live animal or the carcass, but I assume it is the latter). The farmers are administering antibiotics purchased for use in other animals, and then feeding them at high levels to sick animals (or even just animals they don’t want to get sick). Think about all the people you know who take prescription drugs not prescribed for them, and then realize that people do that to animals as well. Organically certification does protect against this behavior, but if you find duck pate or veal to be disturbing, does doing it organically make a difference?
My perspective may sound dismissive of organics, but it is not meant to be, and I am not dismissive of organics. I believe in the certification and value it personally. With that said, nuance is something the industry depends on consumers being ignorant of, and how mixed the food supply is towards these practices. There are strictly organic farms or non-organic farms in the cases where the proprietor deems it more advantageous to stick to one or the other. Most of the time it is both at the same time, sometimes within the same herd or the same egg collection site. An organic cow may not be slaughtered on equipment that has first slaughtered a no organic animal if the equipment has not been cleaned first, but that’s it.
What I believe we need is to constantly stay vigilant to the fact that if organics is the best we can do, we are failing. Organics must be a small step in the right direction for those who want something better for the world, and for more than just the wealthy consumers of this country. That is going to mean more government spending to support organic production so that the less affluent can have access to it, and it is going to mean that we need to add push harder for better certifications that go far beyond what organic calls for.
My last section on organics is going to focus on processed foods, the middle of the grocery store.