Organic Milk—Are You Getting What You Pay For?
By Andrew Gunther
On the heels of a previous report highlighting the lack of enforcement and oversight in our food system, the U.S. Office of Inspector General’s (OIG) new report on whether milk marketed as organic actually meets the National Organic Program’s (NOP) standards is a real wake-up call to the organic community.
And so it should be. Consumers pay a significant premium for organic products and rightly expect transparency and oversight. However, the OIG’s new report, Agricultural Marketing Service National Organic Program—Organic Milk, exposes major failings of the NOP certification and auditing systems. At a time when consumers are turning their backs on industrialized farming systems—and genetically modified (GM) farming in particular—the new report raises real questions about exactly what people are paying for when they buy organic milk.
Between 2000 and 2008, U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) figures show that annual sales of organic dairy products increased by 23 percent, totaling approximately $3.9 billion in 2010 alone. One of the key drivers behind the dramatic growth in demand for organic food is the mounting concern about the impact that GM farming is having on the environment, as well as the potential health risks of consuming GM food. Since the use of GM feed and forage (soybean, corn and alfalfa) is prohibited under NOP regulations, many consumers buy organic milk because they believe it comes from dairy cattle that are not fed GM material.
So it may come as a shock to know that while organic certifying agents are required to periodically test organic products for some prohibited materials, the NOP regulations do not explicitly require testing for GM material. Given the widespread use of GM and GM-contaminated seed, feed, and forage, the OIG report highlights the risk that organic milk could be contaminated as well—either inadvertently or intentionally. Yet rather than requiring organic certification agents to carry out regular GM testing, the OIG reports that NOP officials believed it was “better to allow the certifying agents to decide what they should test for, based on local agricultural conditions, proximity to conventional farming operations, and the product being inspected.” However, as the OIG’s report says, without testing “there cannot be reasonable assurance that certifiers are identifying and ensuring that GM material is not contaminating organic feed and forage.”
The OIG’s report goes on to highlight a number of other concerns with the NOP’s auditing, including the likelihood of milk contamination by NOP-prohibited substances during transport, and the fact that few if any organic certification agents are currently carrying out unannounced inspections, which are known to be particularly important in monitoring whether organic dairy operations are fully complying with the recent so-called “access to pasture” rule.
The final criticism in the Organic Milk report is aimed squarely at the NOP itself. Under law, the NOP is required to maintain a list of all USDA-certified organic operations as a central point of reference, where organic certification agents, food businesses or members of the public can access information about farms and food businesses that claim to be certified organic. However, the OIG found that the NOP’s list of organic businesses is only updated once a year and it is not updated to reflect the details of any organic certificates that have been suspended, surrendered or revoked. In other words, the list is effectively out of date as soon as it is produced.
Of course, no one is suggesting that all organic milk is contaminated with genetically modified organisms or that every organic farmer is breaking the rules. I know many certified organic farmers and ranchers who farm to the spirit of the organic principles and who pride themselves on the very highest welfare and environmental management. Many of these farmers are also part of the Animal Welfare Approved program as a clear statement of their dedication to high-welfare, sustainable farming, and as a means to stand out from the “commodity organic” crowd. At these farms, cattle are out on pasture practicing not just the NOP basics but complying with an even more rigorous set of standards—standards which actually have a positive impact on the animals, the planet, and the community.
The OIG report leads consumers to ask exactly what they are paying for when they buy organic milk. We have put our trust and hard-earned dollars into the organic label, but this trust is being repaid with inadequate oversight and ineffective certification and auditing. My advice is, if you are looking for the true organic experience, you need to look beyond the organic seal and ask whether the product you are buying really comes from the kind of farm you want to support.
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EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
By Naomi Larsson
For centuries, the delicate silver dove has been a symbol of love and fidelity.
Biodiversity and Habitat Loss<p>Their near extinction is a symbol of the <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/global-biodiversity-outlook-targets-extinction-summit-new-york-pledge/a-54932895" target="_blank">biodiversity crisis</a> in the UK, largely driven by habitat destruction. Britain is now one of the countries with the most <a href="https://www.wwf.org.uk/future-of-UK-nature#:~:text=The%20UK%20is%20one%20of,than%20half%20are%20in%20decline" target="_blank">depleted nature</a> in the world according to the World Wildlife Fund. Half its plant and animal species are in decline and more than <a href="https://www.rspb.org.uk/about-the-rspb/about-us/media-centre/press-releases/let-nature-sing-wales/#:~:text=a%20natural%20tragedy.-,Over%2040%20million%20birds%20have%20vanished%20from%20UK%20skies%20in,unaware%20of%20the%20impending%20danger" target="_blank">40 million birds</a> have vanished in just half a century.</p><p>"[Turtle doves] are the canary in the [coal] mine because there are all these other species before it and after it," said Tree. "It's an umbrella for all the other species that are heading that way."</p><p>Turtle doves migrate south through Europe to sub-Saharan Africa between July and September, ending up in dry woodland and farmland areas of countries like Mali and Senegal for winter. </p><p>Droughts in West Africa and the Sahel region are believed to have contributed to the fall in turtle dove species recorded in northern Europe, with low rainfall reducing supplies of the seeds and insects the birds rely on for energy for the long journey home.</p>
Conservation and Farming<p><a href="https://www.operationturtledove.org/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Operation Turtle Dove,</a> a partnership project of charities including the Essex Wildlife trust, works with landowners and farmers to actively build turtle dove habitat.</p><p>Outten works with <a href="https://www.ebws.org.uk/birdsites/blue-house-farm-ewt-north-fambridge" target="_blank">Blue House Farm</a>, a 660-acre nature reserve in the UK county of Essex, where they have replicated weedy fallow plots. </p><p>"We work on it every year to make sure it's in the condition it needs to be with plants such as clovers and black medic," Outten said. "These plants are native to the landscape and produce the seed the birds feed on." </p><p>The birds eat a wide range of seeds from various plants that would have been abundant 50 or 100 years ago, added Guy Anderson, program manager for species recovery with The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB). </p><p>"But it's simply true that with the gradual process of <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/farming-without-pesticides-how-can-we-make-agriculture-greener/a-52216796" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">intensifying our agricultural production</a>, the availability of those seeds has dropped and dropped," said Anderson.</p><p>Part of the project includes supplementary feeding — providing sources of food in the form of seed or grain. Under the Countryside Stewardship Scheme in England, farmers can receive financial support to create a turtle dove habitat. </p><p>Though they haven't recorded an increase in doves across the sites in the four years of working on the project, Outten said they are seeing improvements in how landowners and farmers manage habitat for the birds. </p>
A Turtle Dove Haven<p>The 3,500-acre Knepp Estate in West Sussex is another project taking a different approach and one of the few places where turtle dove numbers are increasing.</p><p>Isabella Tree and her husband Charlie Burrell converted their intensively farmed land into a rewilding project almost 20 years ago. They have let the land return to nature.</p><p>Just one year after they'd finished <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/uks-most-talented-architects-are-not-human/a-35952128" target="_blank">rewilding</a> the southern part of their property, they heard turtle doves for the first time. It's now a breeding hotspot for the birds with an estimated 19 pairs. Knepp is also home to <a href="https://www.rewildingbritain.org.uk/rewilding/rewilding-projects/knepp-estate" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">2% of the UK's population</a> of nightingales. </p><p>Tree is critical of supplementary feeding schemes that, in her view, are short term. She questions the chances of turtle doves getting to feed on scattered seeds before other mammals eat them first.</p>
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Green groups applauded Sen. Jeff Merkley on Wednesday for introducing a pioneering pair of bills that aim to "protect the long-term health and well-being of the American people and their economy from the catastrophic effects of climate chaos" by preventing banks and international financial institutions from financing fossil fuels.