Of all the environmental gaffes the species homo sapien commits in the process of feeding itself, the practice of cramming megafauna into huge pens and plying them with corn may rank as the most imbecilic.
The excellent web site Eat Wild documents the environmental ills of confinement dairy and meat production; here are a few. Cows evolved to eat prairie grass, not grain, which makes them sick. Huge concentrations of large ravenous animals create huge concentrations of shit — which is a critical resource for maintaining soil health in reasonable amounts, but a fetid nightmare when produced at mountainous levels. Industrial corn production requires titantic annual lashings of natural gas-based fertilizers, much of which leaks into groundwater and wreaks havoc clear down to the Gulf. And so on.
Appallingly — though not surprisingly, given its habitual fealty to agribiz interests — the USDA has not seen fit to demand that organic dairy production be pasture-based. The agency’s organic code stipulates that cows be given “access to pasture,” but its bureaucrats tend to give that rule a lackadaisical reading — one fully exploited by Dean Foods and Aurora Organic, the dairy giants that together produce more than half of U.S. organic milk.
In response to such official laxity and corporate opportunism, the scrappy Organic Consumers Association has launched a boycott against companies that sell “organic” milk from factory-style farms.
The boycott targets the myriad brands under which Dean and Aurora sell their goods. Dean brands include the company’s flagship Horizon label as well as its Alta-Dena subsidiary, which was once a scrupulous, small-scale California purveyor of yogurt and cheese. Aurora markets its milk mainly through supermarket private labels. The company supplies Costco’s “Kirkland Signature,” Safeway’s “O” organics brand, Publix’s “High Meadows,” Giant’s “Natures Promise,” and Wild Oats’ organic milk.
Wisconsin-based agribiz watchdog Cornucopia Institute has done groundbreaking work exposing the use of the organic label to pretty up factory-farming practices. The group’s critiques of Dean and Aurora cane be found here and here, respectively. Note, also, its useful survey of organic U.S. dairies.
Here’s hoping that public pressure can trump government sloth and restore a pasture-based definition of organic dairy.