Monday, February 15, 2010

Truly Happy Cows

The organic label has lost some of its cachet in the last few years, supplanted by the local food movement. Largely thanks to Michael Pollan, who pointed out in The Omnivore’s Dilemma that organic certification does not necessarily preclude industrial production methods, awareness of organic shortcomings has grown immensely. Even as Wal-Mart and other mainstream supermarket chains introduced organic foods into their product lines, foodies reached a general consensus that localism is the most ethical way to eat.

They argue that industrial agricultural corporations, through influence in the business-friendly Bush administration, watered down organic rules to allow corporate farms to masquerade as small, sustainable producers. In the dairy industry, for example, organic rules only required that cows have “access” to pasture during the growing season. With such intentionally vague wording, farmers with thousands of grain-fed cows could keep their animals indoors as long as some obscure route outdoors existed. Such rules saved them the time and expense of moving the cows at the expense of health and happiness. Nobody likes a concrete bed.

As I wrote in a February 2008 post, Horizon Organic, which plasters its products with a drawing of a cow leaping in front of the earth while holding a flag that reads “organic,” exemplifies this cynical behavior. It began supplementing its production from individual farm members with milk from several enormous indoor operations that it set up in Idaho and Maryland. While plenty of alternative companies resist such methods (Organic Valley is the best-known), Horizon’s growth has been phenomenal. Indeed, in 2003, it was snapped up by the giant agribusiness corporation Dean Foods. (Aurora Organic Dairy, Wal-Mart’s main supplier, is even worse – apparently even the Bush USDA had to crack down on it for the way it treat its animals.)

Thus it was gratifying to read earlier this week that the USDA has at last clarified the meaning of access. Now, cows must spend the entire grazing season on pasture and consume at least 30% of their food from pasture during that time.

I’ve been aware of this issue ever since I started research on my undergrad thesis in 2004. There is nothing the USDA could do to help small organic dairy farmers against their industrial competitors more than issue these new rules. While there have been many disappointments so far in the Obama administration, I have only good things to say about the actions of the USDA and EPA under his leadership. Tom Vilsack, the Secretary of Agriculture, has turned out to be a more zealous advocate for consumer rights, and in this latest decision, the hand of Kathleen Merrigan, the USDA Undersecretary who came from Tufts and once helped write the Organic Food and Production Act while a staffer for Patrick Leahy, is pretty clear.

A writer in The Times notes that the rules also pertain to cattle operations except during finishing . This is a fairly useless point, since ranchers only confine cattle and feed them grain during that last period just before slaughter. However, I vaguely recall reading that the USDA is also taking a hard look at pesticide use in feed lots (I cannot find a related news clip, unfortunately). Given its aggressive posture so far under Obama, I would not be surprised if the USDA goes after this particularly filthy and cruel aspect of American agriculture—if Obama lasts eight years.

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