Why Buying Organic Is A Really Big Deal If You Care About Animal Welfare

This article is part of the Good Matters series, sponsored by Organic Valley, a cooperative of over 2,000 small family farmers who produce dairy, eggs and produce in a way that’s good for animals, people and the planet. We’re highlighting stories about the people, communities, and companies who are making the world a better place, literally from the ground on up.Along with his wife and seven children, Kinley Coulter operates Coulter Farms, a 220-acre USDA-certified organic beef, lamb, and dairy farm in Honey Grove, Pennsylvania, and sells his milk and meat locally and at DC-area farmers’ markets.

To maintain his farm’s organic certification, Coulter must keep an acre-long trail of records pertaining to his feed purchases, his meat and milk sales, animal births and deaths on his farm, and much else. “We have to be able to show a flow of nutrients and foodstuffs and bedding and animals in and out of the farm that is credible based on how much meat and cheese and milk we’re selling,” he explains. “The paperwork is a headache, but we grit our teeth and do it.”Most importantly, he and other organic farmers must produce and maintain a detailed organic system plan, or OSP, that outlines all the land- and animal-management practices they employ to ensure their operation is sustainable, free of genetically modified organisms (GMOs), and untainted by banned pesticides and fertilizers—all of which are required under USDA Organic regulations. While most conventional farmers keep records for accounting and tax purposes, very little is legally required of them unless the food products they produce are found to be adulterated with high levels of drug residues, or are otherwise unsafe for consumption.

Along with all that paperwork, Coulter says an organic inspector visits his farm once a year to look over his operation. “The inspector wants to see every animal group, and all our feed,” he explains. “And they don’t just glance—they stand in the middle of the animals and spend some time with them.”

If the inspector doesn’t like what he sees—if the animals seem too dirty or too skinny or in some way mistreated or unhealthy—he’s going to ask questions, Coulter says.

“But we welcome it,” he says. “We were pretty much organic before USDA started certifying farms, and we understand it’s about credibility and people trusting organic.” He adds:

“If the organic system loses integrity, there’s nothing to replace it. There’s nothing better waiting in the wings.”

It’s safe to say the average consumer is only partly aware of the many regulatory hoops Coulter and other organic farmers must jump through each year to satisfy the USDA’s standards—standards that experts say are a huge step in the right direction.

Part of this is due to industry “green washing”—or some conventional producers’ inclusion of food-label claims like “non-GMO” or “antibiotic-free” that are hazily defined or largely unregulated, says Sasha Stashwick, a senior advocate for food and agricultural programs at the Natural Resources Defense Council, a nonprofit organization dedicated to improving the environment. She points out that both of these terms—and many other standards consumers care about—are mandated and policed by USDA’s organic program already, making it the most holistic approach to better food and animal welfare.

“Organic is unequivocally better than conventional,” she says. That’s true from an animal welfare standpoint, but also from the standpoint of sustaining natural resources, improving public and environmental health, and protecting pollinators and other crop-supporting insects from being killed by pesticides used in conventional farming, she explains.

Consumers are getting the message. Stashwick points out that organic food has, in just the last decade, gone from fringe to mainstream. Organic is now a $47-billion industry in the United States, and has grown nearly 400% since 2005, according to a report from the Organic Trade Association.

Like Coulter, Stashwick says the USDA’s organic certification program is “critical” for public trust. “People need to believe that the term organic is meaningful and well-verified,” she explains.

Others agree, and say the USDA’s organic program is a critical move toward healthier, more humane methods of farming and animal husbandry.

“There have been huge changes in how we manage animals and what we feed them on conventional farms today compared to the 1940s or 50s,” says Charles Benbrook, PhD, an organic foods and agriculture researcher at Johns Hopkins University’s Bloomberg School of Public Health.

Back in the first half of the 20th century, most meat and animal products came from small farms that owned few animals—at least compared to today’s industrial feedlots. (Imagine Dorothy’s Kansas homestead in the Wizard of Oz, and that will give you a good idea of what most of these operations looked like.) Products were inherently “organic” because inorganic practices didn’t yet exist, and producers sold their goods locally. The subsequent rise of massive feedlots, grain-based diets, and animal drug treatments allowed Americans access to huge quantities of inexpensive meat, eggs, and dairy. But animal welfare, along with both consumer and the environment health, have suffered for it. “I think if we could reverse our farming practices and go back to a more traditional way of feeding and raising animals, it would have a profound effect,” Benbrook says.

The USDA’s organic program, he says, is a good step in that direction. Or rather, many steps.

To understand them all, it’s important to recognize just what “USDA Organic” means, and how it compares to conventional standards.

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USDA Organic Beef and Dairy

In terms of cows’ diets, all pasture and all feed must be completely organic and never include GMOs, antibiotics, artificial pesticides and herbicides, animal byproducts, synthetic preservatives, or plastic pellets—which industrial sized conventional farms may actually add to feed to take the place of digestion-slowing fiber and natural roughage. The NRDC’s Stashwick says:

“Because the USDA’s organic certification program extends to all the feed the animals eat, the environmental impacts of that whole supply chain are enormous relative to conventional.”

But organic standards extend well beyond what cows eat. If hay or straw is used as bedding, it must be organic; and materials used to construct barns or holding pens must be free of chemical treatments.

Farmers must also maintain paperwork explaining how their pasturelands prevent erosion and maintain soil fertility. And while organic producers are allowed to deny animals outdoor access “temporarily” to protect them from dangerous conditions, like extremely cold or heat, they must otherwise provide year-round access to the outdoors.

But these standards aren’t just great for cows—their positive effect on human health is becoming clear. One 2016 study found air samples taken near conventional farms contained more antibiotic-resistant bacteria than those near organic farms. And Benbrook says his and others’ research suggests that organic foods are nutritionally superior, with studies finding higher levels of omega-3s and other beneficial fatty acids in organic milk and beef.

Related: Why Supporting Regenerative Agriculture Is The Most Powerful Thing You Can Do For Your Health

The infographic below gives a handy overview of the difference between organic and conventional farming when it comes to standards for the treatment of beef and dairy:

why organic cows are better
Becky Eaton

Guidelines for Organic Certification of Dairy Livestock
USDA Animal Feeding Operations and Confined Animal Feeding Operations
Higher PUFA and omega-3 PUFA, CLA, a-tocopherol and iron, but lower iodine and selenium concentrations in organic bovine milk: A systematic literature review and meta- and redundancy analysis.British Journal of Nutrition, February 2016.
Assessment of herd management on organic and conventional dairy farms in the United States.Journal of Dairy Science, February 2013.
USDA Guide for Organic Livestock Producers
Composition differences between organic and conventional meat: a systematic literature review and meta-analysis.British Journal of Nutrition, March 2016.

USDA Organic Poultry and Eggs

As with organically raised cows, the feed of organic poultry raised for meat or egg production must be organic and free of the same funky ingredients. Humane treatment is also a must: Organic poultry farmers aren’t allowed to trim the beaks of older birds, and trimming among younger birds is restricted to the tips of their beaks. None of these restrictions are applied to conventional poultry farmers; however, some do adhere to conventional animal welfare programs that don’t allow trimming.

Terms like “cage-free” and “free-range” are also covered by the USDA’s standards for organic poultry. Unlike conventional birds in large, industrial feedlots, they cannot be crammed into crates or cramped living quarter that make even breathing a struggle. Birds must have room to exhibit natural behaviors such as fully extending their wings, lying down, foraging, and dust bathing.

Organic poultry standards are good for humans, too, with some studies finding that organic chickens and turkeys harbor far less antibiotic-resistant bacteria than conventional, and that organic poultry meat contains significantly more healthy polyunsaturated fats. The cleaning products used to wash organic eggs are also subject to many ingredient restrictions, ensuring that certain chemicals come nowhere near your future breakfast.

Related: Only 1% Of Farmland In The U.S. Is Organic—This Program Is Changing That

See the infographic below to understand the difference between organic and conventional farming when it comes to the treatment of poultry and eggs:

why organic chickens are better
Becky Eaton

USDA Guidelines for Organic Certification of Poultry
Prevalence and Distribution of Salmonella in Organic and Conventional Broiler Poultry FarmsFoodborne Pathogens and Disease, November 2010.
Lower Prevalence of Antibiotic-Resistant Enterococci on U.S. Conventional Poultry Farms that Transitioned to Organic Practices.Environmental Health Perspectives, November 2011.
Composition differences between organic and conventional meat: a systematic literature review and meta-analysis.British Journal of Nutrition, March 2016.

USDA Organic Pork

Certified-organic pigs enjoy all the same privileges as their bird and bovine buddies in terms of feed—all organic and no sketchy ingredients or animal byproducts. Conventional pigs in large industrial feedlots, on the other hand, may end up consuming grease, tallow, bone meal, and other leftovers from the slaughtering process.

Pigs don’t rely as heavily on pasture as cows, and so the USDA does not require pasture time or grazing, however, they must still be given plenty of space and year-round access to the outdoors. However, while organic pigs must be treated “gently and with respect,” some forms of teeth clipping and tail-shortening (a.k.a., “docking”) are still allowed in order to prevent the spread of disease and injury, but only when other more humane methods have been attempted and have failed. (Learn about the farm that’s changing the future of organic pork.)

As with cows and chickens, the perks for us are similar, with research suggesting that organic pigs harbor less antibiotic-resistant bacteria—E. coli, to name one—than do conventionally raised pigs, and that organic pork contains more beneficial polyunsaturated fats.

Related: Conventional Farming Ruined The Soil On Our Farm—This Is How We Saved It

The below infographic shows the difference between organic and conventional farming when it comes to the treatment of pork:

why organic pigs are better
Becky Eaton

USDA Tipsheet: Organic Pig Production
Antibiotic Resistance in Escherichia coli from Pigs in Organic and Conventional Farming in Four European Countries.PLOS ONE, June 2016.
USDA Guide for Organic Livestock Producers
Composition differences between organic and conventional meat: a systematic literature review and meta-analysis.British Journal of Nutrition, March 2016.
New Type of Drug-Free Label for Meat Has USDA BlessingThe New York Times, September 2015.

How the USDA Enforces Its Rules and Regulations

Illustration of farmers inspecting a herd of cows

All the regulations laid out above are just a smattering of the numerous animal safeguards and standards imposed on organic farmers by the USDA. But how does the USDA ensure organic farmers follow the rules?

Nationwide, the USDA partners with roughly 80 accredited certification agencies—including both private businesses and state agricultural departments—to monitor organic producers to ensure they’re meeting all of the program’s standards. Along with their annual visits, the certifiers conduct unannounced inspections and residue tests to check for prohibited substances.

“Each year, USDA receives hundreds of complaints about possible fraudulent organic products,” a USDA spokesperson told Rodale’s Organic life. “Every complaint is reviewed and investigations [are] opened when justified by the evidence.”

But are rule-breakers ever punished?

They are. During the past five years alone, more than 900 organic farmers, ranchers, and producers have had their certifications suspended or revoked for violations of organic standards, the USDA spokesperson said.

“I think consumers can place a high level of confidence in USDA’s seal,” Benbrook says. While he thinks there are some spurious producers—as well as some gaps in the USDA’s oversight—he says there’s no doubt the organic program is a huge improvement over conventional.

Related: The Coming Agricultural Crisis—And 8 Things You Can Do About It Right Now

Put simply, even if a few organic producers are failing to play by all of the USDA’s rules, organic is still far superior to conventional when it comes to animal welfare and conservation of resources.

“I do think there’s been a little too much attention paid to the bad actors,” says Kinley Coulter, the organic farmer from Pennsylvania. “It would be nice if there were more attention on those of us who do things right and make good food.”


Source: https://www.rodalesorganiclife.com