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Organic Milk: “O” For Obsolete?

In recent years, ever since the organic food and sustainable agriculture movement has increased in power (which can be both good and bad, depending on who you talk to), many U.S. dairy farms started converting from conventional to organic. According to the New York Times, however, this pendulum of conversion is beginning to swing the other way. The economic crisis is hitting all farmers where it hurts, and especially small organic farmers; the price of their feed has almost doubled in the past year, and all of a sudden, broke families don’t care as much about whether or not their milk is organic, more whether or not they can afford it. It’s sad, but true: as powerful as organic has proven to be, it’s no match for money.

“The promises of going organic—a steady paycheck and salvation for small family farms—have collapsed in the last six months,” says the New York Times. “As the trend toward organic food consumption slows after years of explosive growth, no sector is in direr shape than the $1.3 billion organic milk industry. Farmers nationwide have been told to cut milk production by as much as 20 percent, and many are talking of shutting down.” Some small farmers, faced with desperate measures, are even debating attaching the term “local” to conventional milk to attract locavore consumers—anything to keep their product afloat. And who can blame them?

“I probably wouldn’t have gone organic if I knew it would end this way,” said Ken Preston, a Vermont dairy farmer who converted his farm in 2005.

Organic, in other words, is turning out to be not so sustainable. Troubled farmers are facing bankruptcy or losing their farms altogether, unless they make some changes. And according to the Times, these changes “coincide with crushing debt resulting from the cost of turning organic, which can run hundreds of thousands of dollars.” Not to mention a decrease in the public consumption of organic milk altogether. Nowadays, in the name of saving money, it’s common for consumers who used to choose organic to now opt for conventional GMO milk, because they’re broke. Bad news—while our frugality may ease financial stress, our health is still at risk. According to Will Allen, author of The War on Bugs (Chelsea Green, 2008), GMO in milk is actually the worst kind:

Anything one eats in the United States that is not organic or not labeled as “No GMO” and has corn, soy, canola, or cottonseed ingredients is probably a GMO-contaminated product. That includes especially milk and milk products—since many milk cows in confinement dairies consume about eight pounds of GMO cottonseed meal and several pounds of GMO corn and soy per day and are shot up with GMO hormones. Milk products are probably the most genetically modified food on the grocer’s shelves. And consumers are becoming wary of the safety of genetically manipulated milk.

And even though the organic food movement has taken off in recent years, genetic modification still exists, big time. Says Allen:

At the same time that poisonous fertilizers, pesticides, hormones, and antibiotics were being sold to American farmers and homeowners, the organic farm movement struggled to stay alive and continue its slow growth. During the late 1930s and the 1940s, theories about and strategies for organic and biological farming advanced dramatically because of the work of several creative thinkers and innovative farmers…

In the 1930s, the quantum leap in knowledge about soil fertility, beneficial insects, and trap cropping was complemented by a considerable increase in the supply of biological insecticides such as rotenone, sabadilla dust, and pyrethrum powder. Safer and increasingly more effective biological pest controls became more widely available, and many farmers made use of the “softer” pesticides and other nontoxic strategies. But their price was high, relative to that of the chemical poisons. Most people used the biologicals only for fleas and household pets because of their high cost…

This long history of success in biological control and organics/IPM (integrated pest management) seems to have had no impact on the university administrators in the United States… At a time when organic and sustainable agriculture was gaining adherents all around the world, the School of Agriculture and Natural Resources diverted most of its resources and intellectual capital into chemical agriculture and genetic manipulation. Now there are genetic manipulation centers at both UC-Berkeley and UC-Davis campuses that are supported by Syngenta and Monsanto, and very little support for biological IPM or organic agriculture research. Peanuts for clean food research, billions for chemical and genetically manipulated food.

Now, this is not to say Organic should be Law. While true, a large-scale organic farm is better for the environment (emission-wise) than a large-scale conventional farm, the lines get blurrier as the farm gets smaller. For example, it’s possible for small organic farmers to abide by standards in regard to their animals’ diet, and at the same time eschew humane animal practice (which is not stressed as heavily in the certification process.) No, this is a small versus big issue. We’re still a long way away from a mass culture of whole foods where every consumer knows their farmer. And consumers be warned: organic—the kind you may have known and loved, the one separate from corporate rule—is rapidly becoming obsolete. So is Local. Where it used to mean “whole, fresh food raised naturally” (didn’t it?!) now Frito-Lay is developing a local sticker, and those chips are loaded with crap, local or not. Marketing has co-opted the integrity of sustainable production, and small farms are endangered. The big business model will weed them out, until they sell out, fold…or until someone changes the model altogether.


Makenna Goodman works and blogs for Chelsea Green Publishing, a leading community providing books and dialogue on the politics and practice of sustainable living.

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