Correcting organic misinformation

Rural Life Today, 5/4/16

By Carol Goland, Ph.D

OEFFA Executive Director

COLUMBUS — Don “Doc” Sanders’ question (In his April Rural Life Today column) —“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 brought 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 percent 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 shared 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/.

Carol Goland, Ph.D, is Executive Director of the Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association.