CORNUCOPIA, WISCONSIN: The Cornucopia Institute, on January 10th, 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 other 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 concentrated 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.

Also in January, 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 (subsequently the story has been reprinted in newspapers from coast to coast). One of the owners of the large Colorado farm, located near 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,” Kastel said.

“This just puts rank-and-file organic dairy producers, who are operating with integrity, at a competitive disadvantage,” said Tony Azevedo, a Merced County, California, dairy farmer who 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 are the very essence of why consumers are willing to pay a premium for our product,” the California dairyman affirmed.

USDA Feels the Heat in Response to Organic Pasture Controversy

The USDA’s National Organic Program immediately responded to sharp criticism from the organic community alleging that agency complacency was allowing large factory farms to produce organic milk while skirting the legal requirement that the cows have access to pasture as a fundamental part of their feed source. The NOP late Monday, January 10, issued an internal memorandum requesting that the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) develop a strict policy on the pasture requirement at its upcoming March meeting so that the agency can issue a guidance document enhancing enforcement.

“We are obviously pleased at the rapid response to our concern that factory dairy farms are playing loose with the organic rules. But it shouldn’t take the threat of legal action or scrutiny from the news media to wake up our regulators at the USDA,” said Cornucopia’s Kastel. The agency has had a draft of a strong pasture policy, written by the NOSB, since 2001 but never chose to take action on it.

“It sure is an unusual juxtaposition,” Kastel stated. “Every other sector of agriculture fights like hell against regulatory oversight. Here we are, the organic farming community, begging for strict regulation to protect the integrity of the organic label, and it takes political pressure and the power of the press before we get any attention.”

While organic farmers and consumers await the results of any pending investigation by the USDA, all eyes will be on Washington next month for the upcoming NOSB meeting.

The Cornucopia Institute, the Northeast Organic Dairy Producers Association, The National Campaign for Sustainable Agriculture, and other groups will be out in full force at the March 1 meeting. Many livestock producers from throughout the country either will be in attendance or will be sending in their comments to be presented on their behalf.

“It is very important that farmers make a strong statement at this upcoming meeting. The USDA needs to adopt a strict pasture enforcement policy right now,” Kastel concluded. “Furthermore, we need to throw the gauntlet down and let the corporate agribusiness lobbyists know that if they attempt to do an end run around the organic community, by trying to water down the organic standards in Congress, that consumers and farmers will be out en masse to challenge any dirty tracks.”

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