CORNUCOPIA, WISCONSIN: The Cornucopia Institute, today, filed a formal complaint with the USDA’s National Organic Program asking them to initiate an investigation into alleged violations of the federal organic law by a factory farm operating in Colorado. At issue is whether it is legal to confine cows in an industrial setting, without access to pasture, and still label milk and dairy products organic. Similar factory farm operations in Idaho and California are also under investigation by The Cornucopia Institute and will likely be targeted with formal complaints to the USDA in the near future.
“We have been interested in these confined animal feeding operations, or CAFOs, for some time,” said Mark Kastel, Senior Farm Policy Analyst, at the Wisconsin-based Cornucopia Institute, a progressive farm policy research group. As demand for organic milk has skyrocketed, investors have built large industrial farms mimicking what has become the standard paradigm in the conventional dairy industry. “It is our contention that you cannot milk 3000-6000 cows and offer them true access to pasture as required by the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990, the law that governs all domestic organic farming and food processing,” said Kastel.
This week the Chicago Tribune published an investigative report that compared the 5600-cow Aurora Dairy in Colorado to a more traditional 70-cow organic farm in central Wisconsin. One of the owners of the large Colorado farm, in Platteville, Colorado, Mark Retzloff, has justified an exemption from the requirement for pasture based on not enough rain in the area to support it. Federal law does give the farmer the ability to remove cows from pasture for “temporary” reasons based on weather, environmental, or health considerations. However, in their complaint, The Cornucopia Institute countered that the claim that pasture is impractical, or not cost-effective, in arid Colorado is no excuse under the law.
“There are many places in the United States that are not ecologically compatible with livestock agriculture. If the Aurora dairy cannot incorporate a meaningful amount of pasture into their operation, because they are located in an extremely dry, arid region, that is no excuse for them to scoff at the organic regulations,” Cornucopia’s Kastel said.
“This just puts rank-and-file organic dairy producers, who are operating with integrity, at a competitive disadvantage,” said Tony Azevedo, a Mercied County, California, dairy farmer. Azevedo, who ships his milk to the Organic Valley marketing cooperative, was the first certified organic dairy producer in the San Joaquin Valley. “Pasture is the cornerstone of organic dairy farming. It is a great way to protect the soil, create wildlife habitat, and makes an ideal filter system-protecting our waterways,” added Azevedo. There is also evidence that pastured cows are healthier than cows that are routinely confined.
In addition, what cows eat affects the nutrients in their milk. The Danish Institute of Agricultural Research recently reported that organic milk-defined as produced by pastured cows-is 50% higher in vitamin E, 75% higher in omega-3 fatty acids, and 200%-300% higher in antioxidants than conventional milk. “The quality of our milk, and our production practices, is the very essence of why consumers are willing to pay a premium for our product,” the California dairyman affirmed.
The Cornucopia Institute said in their communique that they expect the U.S. Department of Agriculture, state agencies, and the independent certifiers responsible for oversight and enforcement to take this formal complaint very seriously and to respond in a timely manner.
“The consumers in this country, who go out of their way to purchase organic milk believe they are supporting an environmentally sound system of agriculture, humane animal husbandry practices, and family-scale farmers. The USDA needs to deal decisively with corporations who pay lip service to the ethics of organic agriculture at the expense of family farmers and the consumers who so loyally support them,” stated Kastel.