Washington Post Confuses Organic With Grass Fed


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Alison Van Eenennaam | Cooperative Extension Specialist in the field of Animal Genomics and Biotechnology in the Department of Animal Science at University of California, Davis | @BioBeef

This piece previously appeared on the author’s blog. It appears here by permission of the author.


On May 1 the Washington Post came out with an incredibly misleading article entitled “Why your ‘organic’ milk may not be organic”. What they did not provide was incontrovertible evidence to support this assertion. Such evidence would have been a clear violation of the “Organic Standards”, for they alone define organic in this country. Rather the article seemed to be concerned that there are large organic dairies.The article stated that “organic dairies are required to allow the cows to graze daily throughout the growing season — that is, the cows are supposed to be grass-fed, not confined to barns and feedlots. This method is considered more natural and alters the constituents of the cows’ milk in ways consumers deem beneficial.”

A simple check of the “Organic Standards”, i.e USDA National Organic Program regulations would have revealed that statement to be misleading. In fact the rules are that “Organic ruminant livestock must have free access to certified organic pasture for the entire grazing season. This period is specific to the farm’s geographic location, but must be at least 120 days. Additionally organic ruminants’ diets must contain at least 30 percent dry matter (on average) from certified organic pasture.  The rest of its diet must also be certified organic, including hay, grain (although see another recent WaPO article on organic grain imports), and other agricultural products. Outside the grazing season, ruminants must have free access to the outdoors year-round except under specified conditions (e.g. inclement weather).”

Screenshot – Washington Post video

So the objective fact is that organic cows are required to get 30% of their dry matter intake, on average, from certified organic pasture during the growing season. They are not “supposed to be grass-fed”, although they are required to have access to outdoors year-round except under specified conditions. Colorado ‘s growing season is defined as March or April for cool season grasses, and May for warm-season grasses through the first hard freeze, generally late August to early September. That is about 120-150 days. If you go there for three days in August, three days in September and two days in October – you have pretty much missed most of the growing season. And so just because you do not see cows grazing, does not mean they are suddenly not organic! The rest of the diet is still required to be certified organic feed. These feedstuffs are considerably more expensive than conventionally-raised feedstuffs, and so organic farmers incur higher feed costs, which is part of the reason organic milk is more expensive. Feed is the major cost in animal production systems.

Organic agriculture is delineated by its standards as defined by the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990. In other words, although the Washington Post article asserts that organic cows are “supposed to be grass-fed”, that is NOT what the standards require. This is important. If you are going to claim that operations are violating the organic standards, you had better be aware of exactly what the standards require!  Articles like this cast doubt on the organic milk market supplied by some of the farmers I work with here in California, also a dry Mediterranean climate with an equally short growing season. Just because cows are not on pasture, does not mean they are out of compliance with the organic standards, and so the headline “Why your ‘organic’ milk may not be organic” is not supported by the information in the article.

 Further the article continues on to suggest that organic is associated with some milk quality attributes in terms of milk fatty acid composition.  Organic does not guarantee a certain fatty acid milk composition of the product. In fact grass fed “conventional” cows have the same milk fatty acid profile as organic grass fed cows (as I discussed in a previous blog post).

If you happen to live in a place that favors a year round growing season for grass like New Zealand or the Northern coastal counties of California (e.g. Humboldt as shown in this graph), then both organic and conventionally-farmed milk will have marginally higher levels of omega-3 fatty acids as compared to cattle fed a diet higher in omega-6 fatty acid feed sources.   This can even be seen in the California data point in Figure 1 on the left  from  the article cited by the Washington Post where in fact the conventional milk had significantly higher levels of the desirable omega-3 α-linolenic acid acid, and marginally higher levels of CLA (conjugated linoleic acid).

In other words it is what the cow eats that impacts the fatty acid composition of her milk, not whether she is in a conventional or organic production system. While the organic standards have something to say about organic cows being required to get 30% of their dry matter intake, on average, from certified organic pasture during the growing season, it is not against the standards for cows to be fed organic feedstuffs, nor for 100% of their diet to come from such diets when it is not the growing season.

As stated by former Secretary of Agriculture Dan Glickman regarding organic products

“Let me be clear about one thing. The organic label is a marketing tool. It is not a statement about food safety. Nor is ‘organic’ a value judgement about nutrition or quality,” SECRETARY OF AGRICULTURE DAN GLICKMAN, DECEMBER 2000

The only specific features that distinguish organic from all other forms of farming are the requirement to abide by the production methods outlined in its standards. These include the rejection of antibiotics to treat sick animals, prohibiting the use of genetically engineered seed and feed and soluble minerals as fertilizer, and avoiding the use of most synthetic pesticides (except dairy cattle dewormers) in favor of natural ones.

The Washington post article states that grazing “alters the constituents of the cows’ milk in ways consumers deem beneficial.” I love that it says in a way that “consumers” deem beneficial, because that is not what the scientific literature says. As I mentioned in my previous blog – if you are looking to get omega-3s – eat a food source that has high levels of omega-3 fatty acids like salmon! The marginal differences in omega-3s between pasture fed and concentrate fed dairy cows are unlikely to be biologically meaningful as milk is not considered a good source of fatty acids to begin with. Milk is a good source of other nutrients like vitamin D, Calcium, and potassium.

According to the USDA standard reference database, an eight fluid ounce cup (244 g) of 3.25% fat milk has 0.183 grams of omega-3s, most of it 18:3 (α-linolenic acid). A half fillet serving (178 g) of salmon has 4.023 grams of omega-3s,  most of it long-chain fatty acids (EPA and DHA). In other words I get more than 20 times the omega-3 fatty acids from a serving of salmon that I get from a glass of milk, and they are the long-chain varieties. And if the milk is non-fat or skim the amount goes down to 0.0049 grams of omega-3s, because – well they removed the fat!

So why do I care if the Washington Post gets an article on organic livestock standards wrong? Because accuracy around reporting  in agriculture is as important as accuracy around all other subjects, and yet often the nuances of farming are omitted to make for a better story. And for years there have been negative stories especially about “big” agriculture. The organic standards for livestock are what they are; and they are clearly delineated. If you comply with them then you are allowed to label the products coming from that production system as organic. Organic certification does not guarantee food safety, or improved nutrition, or 100% grass fed, or a specific size of farm, or a specific fatty acid profile in the milk derived from cows raised on organic dairies.

I am certainly no fan of ANY production system that arbitrarily prohibits the use of safe technologies that could reduce the environmental footprint of our food production. It goes against my understanding of the need to allow farmers to have flexibility when addressing the unique problems on their farm, and  of my interest in researching new ways to try to improve the efficiency of agricultural production systems. And I certainly share the concern of Anthony Trewavas  that as demand increases “The consequence of less-efficient agriculture will be the elimination of wilderness that by any measure of biodiversity far exceeds that of any kind of farming system”. However I think this article did not fairly explain the organic livestock standards, nor in fact prove that there was a clear violation of those standards which is the basic premise of its misleading headline.

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