Readers share their suggestions for improving organic agriculture.

Published April 14, 2005 8:00AM (EDT)

[Read "The Land of Milk and Money," by Rebecca Clarren.]

It comes as no surprise that the industry-abetting USDA has failed to establish acceptable organic certification standards. Nor does it shock me that in the absence of such criteria, agribusinesses stretch the definition of "organic" to fit a lucrative business model. What ultimately disappoints me is that there are no effective laws to protect factory-farmed animals and the exploited workers who tend them, and that the word "organic" can trick well-intentioned consumers into supporting uncompassionate and ecologically detrimental farming.

Clearly, we can't rely on the legality of a business practice to ensure its decency. As always, it's up to consumers to make compassionate and healthful choices. Thus, the least we deserve is a labeling standard that accurately conveys companies' farming practices.

My hope is that enough people will come to see the importance of a family-farmed, untreated, plant-based diet to keep small organic farms viable and profitable. My fear is that agribusiness, through years of mass-marketing cheap chemical-laden animal products, has already shaped consumers' price expectations and effectively usurped their choice.

-- Elizabeth Amberg Livingston

For those of us who have been making "organic" food choices for over 25 years, Horizon Milk was immediately suspect for not being truly organic. A large producer like Horizon can never meet its quota without blending the milk of thousands of animals. Shopping for quality organics also means looking for the freshest products, and that means buying from sources as close to your location as possible. And you have to be willing to pay more to support your local community farmers.

Milk from Idaho is not only [not] as fresh as the milk I can get near my home, but it costs more fuel dollars per gallon. Similarly, an organic tomato from Chile has traveled way too far to be worth buying when one factors in its fuel cost.

I believe that each and every dollar I spend is a way of registering my vote for how food should be produced -- locally and organically -- and price is almost never an object.

--Constance Shea

I was disgusted reading "The Land of Milk and money." Everything that I read in the article suggests that the milk from these cows is "organic" in every sense of the word. "Organic" food, in every definition that I can find, generally refers to food produced without chemicals. This is milk produced without hormones and pesticides, making it truly organic.

The fact is that regular, conventional milk is already pretty damn expensive for the average U.S. citizen. Organic milk such as Horizon's is insanely expensive and completely unaffordable for the majority of the populace. What this article is suggesting, that cows should have a happy, carefree lifestyle, is simply over-the-top self-indulgence on the part of exceedingly wealthy foodies with too much time on their hands.

As a person living below the poverty line, I would be more than happy to buy Horizon milk if I could afford it, knowing that I wouldn't be drinking hormones and antibiotics. If wealthy and idealistic consumers want to pay $10 a gallon for milk with a label naming the cow, a picture of the cow, and a list of the cow's likes and dislikes, they are entitled to do so. But to assume that everyone buying organic can pay a premium for the cow's name and to personally meet the farmer is smug and elitist. Let those of us who cannot afford that level of service (believe it or not, there are lots of us in this country) choose to buy real organic milk without muddying the waters with some kind of twisted Martha Stewart-inspired ideal of what milk should be.

-- Frank Papa

Could we actually produce enough dairy products for 300 million Americans if all cows were living the idyllic life of the Oregon farm you described?

Something tells me that if our nation set aside enough land to allow all our dairy cows, meat cows and chickens to roam free in pastures, we might be facing a completely different type of environmental problem.

Would the cow-friendly grass species start overtaking the native grass species that wildlife depends on? Would we need so much land for all this free-roaming livestock that we would have to cut down forests? Would the cows walking on pastures cause erosion of hillsides?

I suspect that the sad reality is that due to our country's enormous population, it just isn't be possible to produce all the food we demand using small family farms.

-- Aran Johnson

This hubbub sounds like the folks who bitch about the Toyota Prius because it isn't a rechargeable electric car.

Let's take this one step at a time. I want milk that is free of hormones and antibiotics. If Horizon can do that profitably, then it puts pressure on the mainstream producers to change. Later we can push for more free-range cows.

If we turn on the company that is actually providing us what we want because it isn't perfect, then we'll end up back with only chemically augmented milk.

--Michael Turner

I have been drinking Horizon milk for years. After reading your article, I am very angry for being misled about this product. I have just contacted the manager of dairy at the Whole Foods Greenville Avenue store in Dallas and have left word with my local Central Market. The manager of Whole Foods did not know about Horizon milk. I told him that at the very least he should leave your article next to the Horizon milk so consumers can inform themselves but that ideally Whole Foods should stop stocking Horizon milk.

-- Inge Bernaldo

Rebecca Clarren's article on organic dairy farming comes close to confronting some uncomfortable realities of organic farming, but ultimately shies away. Organic certification is based not on any objective standards of what constitutes sound agricultural practice, or quality produce, but on an "I know it when I see it" formulation of what certain growers consider "the way things should be done." It is deeply rooted in an anti-science and anti-business mentality that causes many, if not most, of its advocates to reject techniques not for how they affect the sustainability of agriculture or the quality of its products, but for their origin or their effect on the "right kind of farms."

Horizon clearly isn't the right kind of farm to those organic advocates. But note that their arguments for why this is so are completely arbitrary. Why 120 days of grazing for 30 percent of the cows? If grass is king, and milk is so much better when milked from grass-fed cows, why not 100 percent of the cows for an entire 270-day lactation? The answer is that in most of the United States, no organic dairy can graze cows that long. In the northern Midwest (think Wisconsin, the dairy state), 180 days is a practical limit for having grass of high-enough quality to maintain lactation. If organic farmers there limited themselves to selling milk from grazed cows, they'd sell milk only in May through October, when the market is, naturally, glutted with milk!

The criticism of Horizon with respect to overfeeding of grain may be well founded. Certainly cows are not evolutionarily adapted to high-grain diets. But if the organic movement is concerned about the health and happiness of cows, why not promote a simple standard for feed quality in terms of its balance of fiber, protein and carbohydrates? This would be no more onerous than the existing standard for the feed being itself organic. Why not impose a health standard that drops organic certification if more than a certain percentage of a dairy's lactating cows experience metabolic diseases such as ketosis? Dairies are already monitored for all sorts of diseases; so again, this would not be particularly onerous. Or, why not regulate the milk itself, requiring that organic milk must meet those high standards for vitamins that grass-fed milk "naturally" meets?

I think there is a simple reason these are not the standards being proposed: the "wrong kind of farms" could easily meet them, and use big business techniques to undersell the "right kind."

I could go on at length about how organic standards focus on controlling process and inputs, rather than assuring quality results. But the point is always the same: Organic farmers know how they want to farm, so they try to create a standard that enshrines their practices as correct. They should not call this "certified organic" but "certified bucolic."

-- Steve Demuth

"Organic" used to be a matter of private definition. Ethical people began the organic movement, and ethical people created ethical certification organizations with published standards for what was organic.

Big corporate profit-chasers wanted to invade the organic sector, so they and their well-meaning dupes in the organic movement lobbied Congress for a federal law to regulate organic agriculture. Some activists warned that federal interference would damage the organic agriculture movement by subverting the meaning of "organic."

The only way to save organic farming is to repeal the federal law. If you want a law, seek a forced full-disclosure law. Force every farmer and food processor to reveal in clear printouts and documents every single product and process used at every stage of the farming or production operation. Make the omission of even one product or process a hard-time long-sentence felony. Force every farmer and food handler to compete on the same full-disclosure playing field. That would benefit the literate food customer who could decide whose food was "organic enough" for his or her taste and budget.

-- Joshua Banner

By Salon Staff

MORE FROM Salon Staff

Related Topics ------------------------------------------