Figure 1. Organic Cows in Field (Sheepdrove, 2010)
Organic Cattle Operations are Not Working
Bryna Brooks, Timothy Burdsall, Jessica Condlin
6 December 2013
You wake up one morning, feeling nauseated, dizzy and drowsy, wanting to regurgitate last nights dinner. To the average person, these symptoms would indicate the flu or food poisoning. Your concerns send you to your doctors’ office all the way across town, waiting for an hour just to be seen. You tell the doctor what your symptoms are and he asks you what you have eaten in the last few days. You list everything from having a donut covered in glaze three nights ago, to the organic hamburger you had last night. The doctor suspects that you might have eaten contaminated beef with E. coli. After some tests, he confirms that you have an E. coli bacterial infection, probably from the beef that you ate. This can be deadly, causing kidney problems and eventually kidney failure (WebMD, 2010).
This type of situation occurred in 2009 where twenty six individuals from eight states were affected by a strain of E. coli O157:H7. The reported illnesses began in September of 2009 and the last reported illness was recorded in November of 2009. Of these twenty six reported cases, two deaths were recorded and 545,699 pounds of Fairbanks Farm beef was recalled (CDC, 2011).
E. coli 0157:H7 bacterial contaminations are slightly more prevalent in organic than in non-organic beef. A study done by Reinstein et al. (2009) showed that 9.3% of all organic beef feces contained E. coli and found 6.5% in non-organic beef feces (par. 4). As information about organic beef becomes more accessible, its untarnished reputation is besmirched .
Organic is defined as having no antibiotics or growth hormones used in the growing process. Beef cattle that are certified by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) as organic are required to be given forage or grains that were organically grown. All feed additives and supplements need to be organically grown and handled. The diet must consist of 30% dry matter intake from pasture grazing while in the grazing season, which could last at least 120 days. They must also have free access to pasture throughout the year, if the weather permits (USDA National Organic Program/Agricultural Marketing Service, 2013). As the beef cattle reach market weight, there are two feeding methods used (Parker, 2010, par. 14). There is the grass fed method, where they continue to consume grass until they are slaughtered, or the grain fed method, which involves the feeding of organic grains during their last three to four months of life (Parker 2010). Due to the nature of these feeding practices and other organic protocols, organic farming operations frequently fall short when compared to non-organic farming systems’ sustainability.
Organic Sustainability Concerns
There is often a misunderstanding that an “organic” label represents a sustainable and environmentally conscious choice of product (Wood et al., 2006). Many environmentalists vouch for organic farming methods because they believe the farmland enables higher biodiversity and causes fewer negative impacts on the environment (Wood et al., 2006). However, the frequent mechanical weeding of the land often harms the overall biodiversity; these practices destroy birds’ nesting sites, worms, and other soil invertebrates (Trewavas, 2003). Within organic parameters, synthetic fertilizers are prohibited, so instead, organic farms use manure (Trewavas, 2003). This may seem like a “greener” solution than synthetic chemicals, but when examined, manure breakdown often leads to nitrate leaching that pollutes aquifers and waterways at identical rates as fertilizers on non-organic farms (Trewavas, 2003). The trade of chemicals for manure breaks down to the swapping of one pollutant for another. Decomposing manure also releases a great deal of nitrous oxide and methane, two predominant greenhouse gases (Trewavas, 2003). It is misguided to believe that organic is the correct choice because many factors equate these farms with non-organic ones.
When it comes down to land degradation, non-organic farms are superior to organic farming. We conversed with Julie Rawson, owner of Many Hands Organic Farm. When asked, “if it was difficult to compete with non-organic methods that can produce more yield with less land,” she responded with a simple, “no.” Julie retorted that, “[non-organic] farming does not produce more yield than organic, that there were not good statistics in favor of organic farming, and that people need to be educated more on organic practices” (J. Rawson, Personal Communication, 2013). However, this statement does not undermine the truth: non-organic farms can match organic yields utilizing only 50-70% of the land (Trewavas, 2003). Organic farms are also prone to higher land disturbance (Wood et al., 2006). The cattle are raised on larger plots of land, and even though there are fewer individuals, the continuous grazing results in faster land degradation (Wood et al., 2006). Overall, non-organic farming is more beneficial; it has the ability to produce more yield with less destruction of land, and therefore, can support the human population without the vast impacts on the environment.
When compared, organic farming requires more energy and produces more greenhouse gas emissions than non-organic farming (Wood et al., 2006). The mechanical weeding practices are known to consume a great deal of fossil fuels (Trewavas, 2003). Non-organic farms are able to produce higher yields with less energy (Wood et al., 2006). When compared, non-organic requires only slightly lower amounts of direct energy than organic methods (Wood et al., 2006). Skeptics might think this fact might not be enough to tip the scale in non-organic farming’s favor, however, when viewing the larger picture, non-organic farms can produce more yield with less land and less energy (Wood et al., 2006). Humans are able to gain more without all the increased negative environmental side effects. There is a demand for a sustainable form of agriculture that is able to support our rapid growing numbers. Organic has not proven to be the solution causing non-organic farms to be an absolute necessity due to their high yield and rapid production rates.
In their article Blank and Thompson (2004) proposed that the American Organic niche market should only ever become 20% of the total food sales. Simply because as the world’s population continues to grow rapidly, and human diets have shifted toward animal products, organic farms cannot produce enough yield (Wood et al., 2006). Due to fewer employees working organic farms there is an increased demand of physical labor per individual (Wood et al., 2006). This in addition to lower overall yields correlates with higher market prices when the products hit the shelves of the local grocers (Blank & Thompson, 2004). Non-organic farms, however, utilize technologies to efficiently produce an abundance of food at the lowest prices (Trewavas, 2003). In addition to the many factors of organic farming that negatively impact the environment; there are numerous practices that are detrimental to livestock and have affected their overall welfare. Sustainable aspects of organic beef are directly correlated to the welfare and the health conditions of the cows from which they come.
Analysis of Organic Animal Welfare
The standard of animal welfare in organic farming operations is inappropriately portrayed to consumers. Animal welfare is defined as the “…physical and psychological well-being of animals…” with respect to the five freedoms (AVMA, 2013). These freedoms are noted as the freedom from hunger and thirst, the freedom from discomfort, the freedom from pain, injury or disease, the freedom to express normal behavior, and finally the freedom from fear and distress (Spoolder, 2007). The Report of the Technical Committee to Enquire Into the Welfare of Animals Kept Under Intensive Livestock Husbandry Systems defined the five freedoms through the Brambell Report in 1965. Throughout the past decade there has been a growing perception that organically raised animals have greater animal welfare (Spoolder, 2007). Unfortunately, this is not the case: organic farming practices violate these freedoms and has led to the incorrect thought that livestock raised in an organic system have a significantly higher quality of life (Spoolder, 2007).
One set standard of care for organic beef is nearly impossible within the United States. Organic policies vary between states due to the State Organic Program. This program enables each state to implement their own organic protocol for agricultural products produced and handled within the state’s confines (USDA 2013). Organic farmers must utilize organic methods that meet the requirements of the State’s Organic Program (SOP) which are enforced at the state level. Each state’s SOP is allowed to have a higher regulation standard for organic products than standards from the National Organic Program (USDA 2013). Because of this, quality of care and the level of welfare that is provided to animals in an organic system is variable. Having variable standards, organic farmers are allowed to provide a minimum level of care and still satisfy the needs of their state’s SOP. This leads to overall poor animal welfare(Roderick et al., 1996).
In accordance to the guidelines of raising organic livestock, certain feedstuffs and various forms of supplementation are not allowed. “[O]rganic standards require forage based (60% of daily dry matter intake) and primarily home-grown diets and restrict[s] the use of feed supplement[s] and synthetic vitamins.” (M Hovi et al. 2003, 23) Research has shown that cows that are not given the vitamin supplementation needed are at risk for energy and vitamin deficiency in early lactation and may consequently suffer from metabolic disorders as well as poor fertility. This vitamin deficiency can lead to poor overall animal fitness. (Kristensen and Pedersen, 2001: Knaus et al., 2001) Subjecting these animals to such deficiencies violates the freedom from pain, injury, or disease. These deficiencies are easily preventable with inexpensive vitamin supplementation. In non-organic practices, vitamin supplementation is permitted which results in fewer recorded incidents of vitamin deficiencies.
Organic farmers further violate this freedom with regard to parasites, both internal and external. Studies done in the UK have shown that internal and external parasite control has become a major concern for organic livestock farmers. Without the ability to use traditional parasite controllers, organic farmers have reported lower weight gains in grazing calves in the first grazing seasons (M Hovi et al. 2003). Non-organic farmers, who practice similar management systems to organic farmers while also using chemical parasite controls do not experience such weight loss in their calves (M Hovi et al. 2003). External parasites, diarrhea, and mineral deficiencies were found to be the most common conditions in young stock. Furthermore, slaughter statistics show lesions found in animal carcasses that carried a heavy parasite load. Sundrum reports that these lesions reduce the value of the product which results in a decrease in profit (2001). It is in the best interest of organic farmers to provide parasite controls to ensure a high quality product and a maximum profit. Potential risks for mineral deficiencies and heavy parasite burdens will arise unless proper husbandry and monitoring systems are instituted. The restrictions on feed supplementation as well as prophylactic parasite control have been identified to cause these issues which are absent in non-organic systems. Organic standards have been defined by organizations such as the USDA and IFOAM which advocates for organic agriculture.
The International Federation for Organic Agriculture Movements or IFOAM states that “[t]he aim of organic agriculture is to give all livestock [the] conditions of life with due consideration for the basic aspects of their innate behavior”(IFOAM, 1998, p.1). However, it has been identified that many of the standards that are followed by organic farming systems have a detrimental effect on animal welfare due to restriction to the use of dietary supplements as well as conventional veterinary medicine (Sundrum, 2001). Padgham notes that while vaccination is not restricted under most organic standards, there has been a tendency to avoid the use of vaccinations to ultimately reduce stress to the animal caused by vaccinating (43-49). Infectious outbreaks of clostridial diseases ,which are horribly detrimental to herd health and immunity, have emerged as a result of not utilizing vaccinations. In organic livestock situations vaccinations must not be made from synthetic chemicals (ECFR, 2013), and antibiotic use is strictly prohibited. Organic titles are revoked from the animal if subjected to antibiotics. Animals treated with antibiotics are removed from production for a designated length of time, determined by the state (usually two or more months) (Lund, Alger 2003, p.10,). This results in a loss of profits for the farmer and is avoided at all costs (Padgham, 43-49). Producers that do not use antibiotics prophylactically are found to have higher incidents of problems, such as mastitis, not found as frequently in non-organic farming operations (Padgham, 43-49). Mastitis is the inflammation of the mammary glands, usually due to a bacterial infection caused by poor management procedures and sanitation protocols. “Mastitis has often been perceived as the main animal health problem in organic dairy herds” (Roderick et al., 1996). This condition is painful for the animal, halts production of milk for dairy cows, and inhibits nursing of offspring, which ultimately affects the young calves health as well.
Everyday, shoppers are being misled about the level of animal welfare under the organic title. The image of cows in big green fields, under a big warm yellow sun paints a misleading picture. There needs to be education to consumers on the level of care provided to these animals and the implications that organic systems are having on them. Apart from consumers being misled about the welfare conditions these animals are subjected to, consumers are also being mislead about the nutritional aspects of organic beef(New York Business Wire, 2005).
Organic Beef Health: Evaluated
As the war on obesity expands in America and in many other countries, so does our knowledge of nutrition and health (Klohe-Lehman, 2006). Everywhere we go there are advertisements in magazines, newspapers and television commercials providing the latest in healthy foods, diets and exercise, guiding us into healthier and thinner societies (Ippolito, 2002, p. E-2). Because of this, we are looking at food differently and demanding for more organic products, causing a rapid increase in the number of USDA certified organic beef in the last ten years (USDA, 2013).
The average price of organic beef in the United States in 2013 was $7.00 (Pillsbury, 2013) compared to $4.11 per pound of non-organic beef during 2012 (Kurtz, 2012). The price of organic beef does not correlate with its nutritional value, suggesting that it is mainly related to its increased demand of labor and management practices that goes into its manufacturing and advertisement (Roberts et al., 2007, p. 2). Organic and non-organic beef provide identical qualities of health benefits. According to Nielsen and Thamsborg (2005) conjugated linoleic acid (CLA) is only slightly higher in beef that consume more grass, such as some organic beef, compared to non-organic beef (par. 25). CLAs are known to be related to the decrease risk of cancer and the formation of plaque in the arteries. As mentioned earlier, organic beef can be finished with either a grass fed diet or an organic grain fed diet, resulting in different levels of CLA in individual organic beef meat. As a result, some organic beef may have the same or lower levels of CLA in their meat compared to non-organic (Nielsen et al., 2005, p.47).
Another factor that should be incorporated into the price of beef is the meat quality; it’s tenderness, juiciness and chewiness. But organic meat does not guarantee high meat quality. The meat quality in organic beef is lower than in non-organic beef, decreasing its palatability among meat consumers, especially if the organic meat is grass fed (Nielsen et al., 2005). Nielsen et al. (2005) looked at organic and non-organic beef practices and found that grass can affect the taste and texture of the meat (par. 24).
Grass, or roughage, contains a great amount of carotene, a yellow pigment that is converted into vitamin A when consumed. As cows wrap their tongues around high amounts of grass, chewing from side to side and digesting it in their four pouched stomachs, all the carotene is not completely turned into vitamin A, resulting in the formation of yellow fat. Yellow fat decreases the meats tenderness, juiciness and creates an “off flavor” taste (Nielsen et al., 2005, p. 6). This can create chewy, tough, dry meat and would need to be cooked differently to try to counteract some side effects of organic meat production (Nielsen et al., 2005).
Despite the off flavored taste, a survey made by New York Business Wire (2005) showed that one of the main reasons people buy organic is because they believe that it is healthier for them (par. 4). According to a Harris poll (2013), about 55% of adults in the United States believe that organic food is healthier than non organic food (par. 12). In reality, organic and non-organic beef have similar health benefits and both “[have] eight times more vitamin B-12, six times more zinc and three times more iron than a skinless chicken breast” and they both have beef cuts that meet governmental guidelines for being considered lean (Pope, n.d., par. 16). Pope (n.d.), of the Nebraska Corn Board, wrote that “[a]ccording to the USDA, which sets the standard for foods to be labeled organic, organically produced food is no safer or more nutritious than [non-organically] produced foods” (par. 16). Based on this information, buying organic beef based on fat and nutritional content is not worth the price. Information about the “organic” label needs to be provided to the public without the public having to search for it themselves.
After a thorough examination of organic and non-organic cattle farming operations, action has to be taken. We believe that organic beef farming operations are not sustainable, are not better for animal welfare, don’t create a better product and should be kept as a niche market. Through proper labeling and advertising, consumers can be educated on the products that they are buying and can make informed choices. These labels should be the responsibility of the company that is creating this product. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is responsible for the regulation of food product labels (FDA 2008). By placing labels on the back of organic products, defining the exact organic standards, education becomes available for the consumers. Chatham Village ™ is an example of a company that has already implemented this strategy. Their all natural products are defined on the back of each box or bag. This description has easy to read font and an overall appealing customer friendly display. By implementing this type of strategy across all organic beef products, we can provide an opportunity for consumers to become educated. We believe that this education will reduce the amount of organic beef products purchased. Furthermore we propose to create an agricultural economics class that would educate students on improving food policies, environmental policies and educating about food supply systems and their environmental impacts. These topics are encompassed in the mission statement of the Resource Economics department at the University of Massachusetts Amherst (Department of Resource Economic, 2013). Students who enroll will learn about economic analysis on agricultural land use and management, focusing on sustainability, nutrition, and animal welfare. This course would emphasize universal consumer knowledge about product differentiation, advertising, and rival prices between organic and non-organic practices. Similar courses are available now, such as, Res-Econ 262: Environmental Economics and Res-Econ 263: Natural Resource Economics (Department of Resource Economic, 2013). Our proposed class would be Res-Econ 264 Agricultural Economics. Students attending this course would be highly motivated because this is the future career path they have chosen and would instil our goals in the future. This education will further pacify the organic beef market, as we will be creating a more educated population.
We determined that organic beef has no significant nutritional difference than beef in non-organic settings and that it may even have higher chance of passing along a bacterial infection. Non-organic systems offer a more sustainable solution for the future because these farms are able to fulfill the growing food demand while using less valuable resources. Furthermore, there are higher parasite loads in organic farming systems and higher numbers of clinical diseases such as mastitis. We determined that non-organic beef farming systems are in the best interest of the consumers, animals, and the planet.
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