Many media outlets, from the New York Times to the blogosphere, have tracked what has been dubbed the "corporate takeover" of organic farming. One of the hottest controversies in this rapidly growing $20 billion industry has been giant factory farms milking thousands of cows each in feedlots and masquerading as organic. Some of these industrial dairies are controlled by the nation's largest agribusinesses.
Since the organic community first appealed to the USDA for better clarification and enforcement of regulations requiring organic dairy producers to graze their cattle, nearly 9 years ago, the number of giant industrial dairy operations, with as many as 10,000 cows, has grown from two to approximately 15. After years of delay, the USDA has finally responded with a new proposed rule that they said would crack down on abuses.
"The birds have come home to roost," said Mark Kastel, Senior Farm Policy Analyst for The Cornucopia Institute. The Wisconsin-based farm policy research group estimates there are 35,000 to 45,000 cows on giant CAFOs (concentrated animal feeding operations) operating in the United States producing as much as 40% of the nation's organic milk supply.
"These CAFOs are producing so much milk that they have depressed pricing and profit margins for organic family farmers, and now some are being forced out of business by this distressing situation," Kastel said. "Organics was supposed to be the antidote to family farmers being forced off the land."
The Cornucopia Institute has filed formal legal complaints with the USDA aimed at compelling the agency to enforce organic livestock and management rules. These actions have led to the shut down or penalizing of some of what they call "organic scofflaws." But many in the industry criticized the agency for failing to fully investigate many other alleged violations on giant farms, including several that supply milk to the nation's largest dairy processor, Dallas-based Dean Foods.
The new USDA rule proposal and its analysis total 26 pages, as published in the Federal Register. The draft rule complies with organic community requests to close specific loopholes being exploited by factory farms confining their cattle. But it also represents the broadest rewrite of federal organic regulations in the $20 billion industry's relatively short history.
Some farm advocates believe that the new rules, if enacted, would put out of business the majority of organic livestock farmers-including hundreds who are operating ethically.
"At first we were delighted that the USDA had stopped their delaying tactics and finally published a rule cracking down on the large factory farms that have been 'scamming' organic consumers and placing ethical family farmers at a competitive disadvantage," stated Bill Welch, former chairman of the National Organic Standards Board and an Iowa livestock producer. "Many in the industry have spent the past weeks carefully examining this dense document, and it has become painfully clear that it would not only crack down on certain factory farm abuses, but it's also so restrictive that it would likely put the majority of family farmers producing organic milk and meat out of business."
"It's inexcusable," noted Ronnie Cummins, Director of the Organic Consumers Association, "that the USDA's rule would allow conventional cattle to be brought onto organic farms, and milked, on a continuous basis," said Ronnie Cummins, Director of the Organic Consumers Association.
In response to the USDA's sweeping livestock/pasture proposal, a consortium of organizations representing organic family farmers has crafted an "alternative" rule proposal. Led by FOOD Farmers, with support from The Cornucopia Institute, organic certifiers, and other policy experts, the revisions they have drafted would carry out what is said to be the will of the organic community, farmers and consumers.
"You don't have to take the word of The Cornucopia Institute alone that the Department has 'Katrina-ed' the organic industry," Kastel stated. "The USDA rule proposal is just the latest salvo in this fight," added Kastel. He noted that audits by the American National Standard Institute (ANSI) and the Inspector General's office were both highly critical of the USDA's execution of its Congressional mandate to oversee the organic industry.
The community's alternative proposal, which is now being circulated among organic farmers and consumer groups, would require that all organic dairy, sheep, goat, and beef producers graze their animals for the entire grazing season and sets a minimum percentage of feed from pasture.
A growing body of scientific literature illustrates the nutritional superiority of milk and meat from organic animals that are grazed on fresh grass, including higher levels of antioxidants and beneficial fats, like omega-3 fatty acids, that protect against cancer and heart disease.
"The good news continues to be that the vast majority of all organic dairy brands available in the marketplace use milk produced by family farmers," observed Cummins. "These farmers truly uphold the high expectations that their customers have," Cummins said.
The Cornucopia Institute just updated their path-breaking research study of the organic dairy sector. The group's scorecard reveals that 85% of the nation's 110 organic dairy brands are meeting the letter and spirit of current organic federal law. "Out of 1800 organic dairy farms in this country, the very few factory farms are a bad aberration, although they are producing huge quantities of milk," explained Cornucopia's Kastel.
Because of the broad scope of the USDA's proposed rule making, Cornucopia, the Organic Consumers Association, and some the largest organic certifiers and other groups representing farmers and consumers are formally asking the USDA to extend the public comment period for an additional 30 days to January 23, 2009.