An article published in many online newspapers on March 20 exemplifies how misinformation about the organic label can spread quickly. In the article, titled "How California’s drought is changing organic milk and honey", Hoda Emam begins by saying "the milk you think is organic, isn’t. Not really." Ms. Emam not only does a disservice to the organic label with this sentence but continues on in the article with information that makes it plainly obvious that many significant parts of this story were left out. It is important to note that although this article may be attempting to lead readers to believe differently, organic milk is in fact organic. Furthermore, the organic label means much more than making sure cows graze on grass at least four months out of the year, and to minimize the USDA organic livestock standards to this statement is not an accurate representation of what is required of organic livestock producers.
While I appreciate the fact that this article brings to light the challenges organic livestock producers in California are facing, it is missing some critical information that is necessary to understand the full scope of this situation. In addition to the requirement to graze animals on pasture, organic livestock are also fed a diet consisting of only 100% organic feed, GMOs are never allowed, and livestock are not allowed to be treated with growth hormones or antibiotics. Organic livestock producers are also required to provide year-round access to the outdoors and an environment that allows them to express natural behaviors. There are allowed reasons for confinement of organic animals, but they are very limited in scope (e.g. inclement weather, risk to soil or water quality). This is just a brief overview of the livestock requirements. To read the complete USDA Organic Standards, please visit www.ccof.org/documents/nop-standards-manual.
Furthermore, while USDA Organic Standards do have a minimum pasture requirement of an average of 30% dry matter intake from pasture for 120 days in a calendar year, all organic ruminant producers (which include dairy and beef) are required to be grazed throughout the entire grazing season for the geographical region. A defined grazing season varies throughout the United States depending on a number of factors (climate, access to irrigation, soil quality, etc.). What this means is that if an organic ruminant producer lives in a place that can accommodate a grazing season that is 300 days of the year, they are required to graze animals during that time, and their dry matter intake from pasture will be averaged over that full length of that grazing season.
I would also like to address the article’s interpretation of the variance that has been issued and how it affects drought affected organic livestock farms across California. This temporary variance may be utilized by organic ruminant producers who typically include February and March in their grazing season. This article seems to imply that these farmers – who are working very hard to face the daily challenges resulting from this drought - are getting a free pass from grazing. This is a distorted view of the temporary variance that was issued and quite honestly does not give enough credit to how hard these farmers are working to not only maintain their livelihood but also the integrity of the organic label. One benefit that was not mentioned in this article is that temporarily keeping animals off of grazing lands is also an effort to preserve the long term viability of the soil and forage that is currently existing. Overgrazing not only hurts the animals, but also impacts the sustainability of those grazing lands, which if cared for properly, will be able to withstand extreme climate conditions like what we are seeing currently.
After reading an article like the one written by Ms. Emam, I would encourage consumers to seek out more information about what this drought and temporary variance really mean for your organic milk and meat. For example, ask your local dairy or beef farmer. We would be happy to answer any questions you have. I think you will find that there is a much richer and more truthful story than the one being told in this article. As a livestock certification specialist at CCOF, I am continually impressed with the passion CCOF certified farmers and ranchers have for not only representing the organic label with integrity, but also how much they care deeply about their animals and their land.
So yes, organic milk is organic. And while the reasons consumers choose to purchase organic livestock products are varied, the bottom line is that when you purchase organic milk, meat, or eggs, you are buying more than just a federally regulated term on a label. You are buying products that are raised in a system that encourages sustainability and transparency. It is a complex and dynamic type of farming that deserves more respect than was exhibited by the recently circulated article.