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So, what’s better, organic or traditional farming?

As I was cogitating on what to cover in this month’s column, I came across a commentary in “Forbes” by Dr. Henry Miller and Drew Kershen, titled The Colossal Hoax of Organic Agriculture. http://www.forbes.com/sites/henrymiller/2015/07/29/why-organic-agriculture-is-a-colossal-hoax/#31796dd038e4.

Their writing brought to mind an online training module I recently completed to prepare for an organic production certifier test. After completing the module, however, I opted not to take the test, but I did gain an education in organic food production. I’ll share with you a bit of what I’ve learned.

First, organic food production standards guide how food is grown. But they don’t guarantee the purity and wholesomeness of the food. Generally, organic food standards guarantee that antibiotics, synthetic pesticides and hormones are not used.

However, organic standards don’t prohibit use of natural pesticides and don’t guarantee that food is free of natural pesticides. And just because they’re produced naturally — rather than synthetically — doesn’t mean that natural pesticides are risk-free.

Many plants naturally produce pesticides to protect their leaves and fruit from insects and other pests. One of the best examples I can cite is pyrethrin, which is extracted from chrysanthemum flowers. They produce the chemical to repel insects. Pyrethrin is commonly used in nonorganic gardens, as well as fly repellants, flea collars and ant bombs.

Organic products at the grocery are rarely tested for purity, because, as I mentioned, organic production certification merely guarantees that food is produced in certain ways — not that the food is pure. The quality, purity and nutritive value of organic food versus conventional food is exactly the same  although organic food is often fresher because of the effort to expedite it to the grocery store. However, organic food is produced at a huge additional cost to the producer — and passed on to the consumer.

Organic milk production is a clear example of how organic standards apply to the production system and not product purity or quality. Traditionally produced milk and organic milk are both free of antibiotics. That’s because the regulations regarding antibiotics in milk are similar for both types of milk production.

However, the methods of traditional and organic dairy production differ when it comes to antibiotic use. I’m sure you’re with me in favoring humane treatment of cows. And I believe this includes treating a sick cow with antibiotics under the supervision of a qualified veterinarian.

In a traditional dairy operation, the milk of a cow being treated with antibiotics is isolated from the other cows’ milk. This prevents contamination of the farm’s milk supply that is transported to a processing plant for pasteurization.

When the ill cow recovers, the dairyman tests her milk to ensure antibiotics are no longer in her system and that her milk is ready for processing. Milk truck drivers also test milk on the farm before they pump it into their trucks to assure that it is free of antibiotic residue.

And when it arrives at the dairy processing plant, the milk is tested once more. Last year over three million tanker loads of milk arrived at dairy processing plants across the country. The good news is that only 0.01% of loads tested positive for antibiotics. And every tainted drop of milk was discarded prior to processing.

Organic milk undergoes the exact same monitoring protocols prior to processing. But under organic dairy production standards, a farm manager’s options for caring for a sick cow are limited to treating for pain relief and using herbal remedies, which are not FDA-approved and are not backed by research. These herbal remedies generally have no scientific data regarding their efficacy.

If I were a dairyman I would want my cows to have the best FDA-approved treatments available for their health. And I would follow the established antibiotic withdrawal times to avoid residues in their milk.

I know someone will ask, “OK, what about those hormones cows get?” In 1994, there was a newly approved product called recombinant bovine growth hormone or somatotropin (rBST), a synthesized version of cows’ natural growth hormone, BST. Dairymen learn how to administer rBST to cows, using management protocols that support good health.

The rBST hormone stimulates cows to produce about 10% more milk on about 90% of the feed normally required. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure the upside of this.

First, it was good financially at a time when dairymen were barely subsisting. And it was —and still is — good for the environment. When you can produce more milk with fewer cows and less feed, you reduce the dairy industry’s carbon footprint, or impact on the environment.

Foodies persisted in making such an issue about hormones in milk. Eventually nearly every grocery chain gave in and pressured processors, who in turn pressured producers, to not give their cows rBST.

The hysteria over rBST being used by dairymen was idiocy. Here’s why:

  • Cows that receive rBST have one nanogram (.000000001 gm.) of BST in their milk
  • Cows that never receive rBST also have one nanogram of BST in their milk — because BST is a naturally occurring bovine hormone. It’s as natural as mother’s milk, speaking of which….
  • Nursing mothers have one nanogram of human somatotropin in their milk

Some foodies alleged that rBST caused a one nanogram increase in insulin-like growth factor (IGF-1) in the milk. This was true, but the human body normally has about 300,000 nanograms of IGF-1. And IGF-1 in milk is digested, not absorbed.

A discouraging consequence of the discontinuance of administering rBST to cows is the impact on our environment. Every million cows fed rBST reduced carbon dioxide and methane emissions by an amount equivalent to taking 454,000 carbon-spewing cars off the road.

So, what’s better, organic or traditional farming?


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  1. The question—“So, what’s better, organic or traditional farming”—is the wrong one to ask. Instead: “What do consumers want?” and “What will benefit farmers?” are the relevant questions.

    Dr. Sanders brings up rbST; however, this issue has been decided in the court of consumer opinion. Consumers don’t want milk from cows injected with this drug. Arguing the merits of its benefits is beside the point. When grocery stores such as Kroger and juggernaut dairy processor Dean Foods state they don’t want to buy milk from farmers who use this product, it’s time to acknowledge the marketplace has spoken.

    And the marketplace continues to speak: consumer demand for organic products has grown by double digits every year since the 1990s, with 84% of Americans now reporting they purchase organic food. Fresh produce and dairy are in the highest demand.

    Consumers want what organic delivers: farming practices that maintain and improve the soil and water resources on which we all depend; eliminating the reliance on synthetic fertilizers that run off fields and pollute our waterways; enhancing biodiversity; animal health care practices that emphasize prevention; allowing ruminants to forage on grass and exhibit their natural behaviors; traceability from farm to table, and a prohibition on genetically engineered seeds and feed.

    It’s unfortunate that Dr. Sanders’ column shares some misinformation about organic dairy production, such as the idea that antibiotic treatment is denied to cows that need it. The National Organic Program regulations require that “all appropriate medications must be used to restore an animal to health when methods acceptable to organic production fail.” If antibiotics are needed, they must be used; the animal must then be removed from the organic herd.

    Organic is not about substituting an unacceptable input for an acceptable one. Instead, it’s about managing a system. It is that production system – in which a variety of clever and effective natural practices are used – that allows organic farmers to avoid using synthetic pesticides that, in turn, remain as residues on food. Organic farmers have access to 25 synthetic active pest control products which have been evaluated for their environmental and human health effects and which are only allowed under a restricted set of conditions; over 900 pesticides are registered for use in conventional farming. It is these contrasts in production systems that produce the demonstrable differences in what Dr. Sanders calls “quality, purity, and nutritive value of organic versus conventional food.”

    An organic livestock system relies on preventative health practices to reduce the risk of common diseases, and to ensure animal welfare and productivity.

    We need veterinarians like Dr. Sanders to help organic livestock farmers understand what they can do to reduce risks in their farming operations, and help them manage those animals if they do get sick. This approach to livestock farming, and the systems used in organics, can benefit all herds— whether the farm is organic or conventional.

    For more information about organic certification and livestock management, go to http://certification.oeffa.org/.

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