WAPO Reporting on Organic Dairy Underscores a Core Problem with Organic

Aurora Organic Dairy - image via The Cornucopia Institute.
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A few weeks back beef researcher Alison Van Eenennaam picked up a major discrepancy in a Washington Post article that read as an expose of a large, industrial organic dairy farm in Colorado. The reporter, Peter Whoriskey, was insinuating that Aurora Organic Dairy was not really an organic farm. Or at least it would not square with the mental image consumers had of the bucolic form of idealized organic farming they thought they were paying extra for.

Screenshot – Washington Post video

As Alison showed, simply by quoting the organic standards and a little insider logic, it’s not at all clear from the Post’s investigation that Aurora is out of compliance with organic standards. What they are is out of sync with consumer ideas about what an organic dairy is supposed to be.

“Consumers look at that cartoon label on organic milk with a happy cow on green pasture with a red barn, but that’s not always the reality,” said Katherine Paul of the Organic Consumers Association. “What we’ve said all along is that organic milks are not created equal, and your results show that.”

One thing Whoriskey gets right, but fails to put in context is that organic farms have a greater environmental impact on a major environmental cost – land use:

The grazing requirement makes milk more costly to produce because it requires a certain amount of pasture land and because a grazing cow produces less milk than one eating a grain diet optimized for milk production.

With grass-fed cows, “there’s just not nearly as much milk,” Prigel said.

One recent paper found that in organic dairy farming takes up as much as 40% more land per gallon of milk produced. That’s a massive environmental footprint. Higher yielding dairy systems are also associated with lower greenhouse gas emissions.

GHG per unit of milk decreases as yield per cow increases.

If you are pointing out how organic consumers’ perceptions of organic farming are out of sync with realities, pointing out the higher environmental costs associated with organic production would seem to be in order, but that didn’t happen in the article. The piece takes it as an article of faith that the consumer ideal of a bucolic, low yielding organic dairy farm also corresponds to lower environmental impacts.

All of which is to set the context for Whoriskey’s latest piece:

How millions of cartons of ‘organic’ milk contain an oil brewed in industrial vats of algae

Inside a South Carolina factory, in industrial vats that stand five stories high, batches of algae are carefully tended, kept warm and fed corn syrup. There the algae, known as Schizochytrium, multiply quickly. The payoff, which comes after processing, is a substance that resembles corn oil. It tastes faintly fishy.

Marketed as a nutritional enhancement, the oil is added to millions of cartons of organic milk from Horizon, one of the nation’s largest organic brands. Rich in Omega-3 fatty acids, the oil allows Horizon to advertise health benefits and charge a higher price.

“DHA Omega-3 Supports Brain Health,” according to the Horizon cartons sold in supermarkets around the United States.

What the Horizon milk carton doesn’t advertise is that some of its contents were brewed in closed stainless steel vats of Schizochytrium. This omission avoids any ick reaction from shoppers, but consumer advocates say it also dodges a  key question: Is milk supplemented with an oil brewed in a factory really “organic”?

“We do not think that [the oil] belongs in organic foods,” said Charlotte Vallaeys, a senior policy analyst, at Consumer Reports. “When an organic milk carton says it has higher levels of beneficial nutrients, like omega-3 fats, consumers want that to be the result of good farming practices … not from additives made in a factory.”

He goes on to make the case, and convincingly I think, that the USDA made a mistake in interpreting the organic standards when they approved the practice of adding algal oil to milk and then grandfathered in the mistake in order not to disrupt the market. We are primarily talking about Horizon brand organic milk and Horizon get a lot of their milk from Aurora, further compounding their confounding of consumer expectations of what the package deal they are buying into when shelling out almost double for organic milk.

Adding the algal oil is probably technically against the organic standards, I’m not going to make the case that it’s not. I want to make the case that it shouldn’t be.

For starters, there’s nothing inorganic about the way Schizochytrium produces the omega acid DHA. It’s perfectly natural. There is a lot of exciting work right now to use biotech to engineer algaes and yeasts to produce different compounds, fats and oils chief among them – and those would be clearly prohibited from the organic standards (not for good reasons, but at least they are coherent). But Schizochytrium produces DHA in nature, that’s what it does. It’s not clear to me why Schizochytrium derived DHA should be prohibited as an additive to organic milk, if consumers want milk with higher omega 3 content.

Industrial DHA production.

If your goal is to produce organic milk with high omega 3 content while minimizing the impact on the planet, then the lower footprint is going to come from a high intensity farm like Aurora plus the algal DHA. It will take less land and produce fewer greenhouse gas emissions. What’s exasperating is that reporters like Whoriskey never bother to benchmark any of this stuff. There is no evidence or metrics applied to ascertain which system is more sustainable. There is only an appeal to whichever system feels more sustainable based on the current aesthetics of  sustainability. That aesthetic heavily assumes that processes and systems that more closely mimic nature are more sustainable. But not everything that feels sustainable is more sustainable. More often than not, the technological intensification results in a lower impact and footprint than less technological systems.

This raises what I think is a pivotal question. If the main goal of organic production is to reduce the environmental impact of production, then why is there so little interest among advocates in looking at the research actually bench marking impacts? Is it possible that the stated goals are masking deeper goals?

If you correlate someone like Whoriskey’s lack of interest in the actual impacts with his preoccupation with whether organic production corresponds with the pastoral sentimentality of consumer expectations, I think we can see that outlines of an answer. What has become clear to me, is that, for consumers and advocates, the problem they are trying to solve in purchasing organic food is not an environmental one. Rather they are trying to solve the spiritual or aesthetic problem when faced with the alienation generated by an undifferentiated, hyper-commodified food system that values cheapness and homogenization over quality or sense of place and community. It’s a quest for authenticity.

The problem is that authenticity and environmental impact are independent variables. Increasing authenticity does in no way imply reducing environmental impact. The other problem is that the quest for authenticity is such a bourgeois goal, that people seem to be embarrassed to be merely in pursuit of a higher quality, more authentic consumer experience. Somehow, filling the spiritual whole left by a fast food, Proctor and Gamble food system also needs to save the planet in the process. Sadly, the two do not go so neatly hand in hand. If you want to connect with local and artisanal craft food producers, you absolutely should, they are making the world a better, more interesting, more delicious place. That’s all to the good. If you also want to lower the environmental impact of your food consumption, then you are probably going to need to offset some of your inefficient craft food consumption with more industrial, more efficiently produced food. Or just eat more oats and lentils.

If you confront this and make it explicit, a few things become clear.

1. Organic certification is a poor vehicle for bringing higher quality, differentiation and authenticity into the food system. These goals are much more directly addressed by choosing artisanal and local products.

2. Organic is a poor vehicle for consumers to identify sustainable food production if their goal is to vote with their dollars for a food system with lower impacts.

All of this suggests a few options, none of which are mutually exclusive.

A. We need a more evidence and metrics based system for identifying and certifying sustainable food production. I’d like to see a Conservation Ag label that would be fairly easy to define and would produce decent confidence that the certified products were by and large produced according to best practices and had a lower relative impact. The problem is that the Organic label has such strong incumbency, it’s hard to get anything new off the ground.

B. The Organic label could come to consciously embrace technological innovation that lowers environmental impacts regardless of ideology.

C. The Organic label could narrow it’s focus back to soil health, soil health and soil health. There has been some move towards this gesture in the objections to including hydroponic production under the organic banner. Just because a hydroponic system forgoes synthetic inputs, if it does not use soil, how can it be consistent with the original focus on soil health of organic founders like Sir Albert Howard, Masanobu Fukuoka, or Lady Balfour?

D. Consumers seeking authenticity through their food consumption can stop dicking around buying a national mega-brand of organic milk like Horizon and seek out amazing local cheeses and other local, artisanal and craft products.

All in all, there should be more clarity in reporting from major publications like the Washington Post and the New York Times who have skilled, but ideologically blinkered beat reporters misinforming consumers on a regular basis from the pages of our two most important, most credible and respected pillars of our free and independent press. Between Whoriskey’s in the Post and Danny Hakim‘s recent work at the New York Times readers have been hit with major high profile food system stories that confuse the issues far more than the clarify.

The New York Times food reporting over the last decade has been marred by Stephanie Strom’s long history of sloppy, pro-organic reporting, Michael Pollan’s admittedly biased and largely aesthetics based approach, and capped by Mark Bittman’s calamitous tenure as food policy columnist – a job he was completely unqualified and unsuited for.

This is all the more disappointing because both publications have writers working for them that are rigorous and make an honest effort to let evidence drive their narratives rather than the other way around. Amy Harmon has done outstanding work at the Times and the Post is home our friend Tamar Haspel, and frequently publishes excellent work by Jane Black. Roberto Ferdman’s tenure as the Wonkblog food blogger was excellent as well.

Consumers need more clarity in what they are trying to achieve when they vote with their dollars.  The Washington Post and The New York Times are uniquely positioned to help them do that. The need food policy and environment beat editors who can tell the difference between rigorous journalists like Amy Harmon and reporters trying to tell just so stories like Whoriskey.


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