With demand for organic milk soaring, the stakes are high in the debate over what exactly “organic milk” is — and that debate will soon be settled, at least from a legal standpoint, by the USDA’s National Organic Program.

As Samuel Fromartz writes in The Rocky Mountain News, the NOP is now considering a proposed regulation that would require all organic dairy farms to meet a certain standard for letting their cows out into pasture. Current USDA regulations only require that organic cows have “access to pasture,” which, says Fromartz, “is akin to requiring a gym membership without mandating regular visits to the gym.”

Reader support helps sustain our work. Donate today to keep our climate news free. All donations DOUBLED!

Indeed, new organic mega-dairies raise as many as 5,000 cows primarily in confined feedlots, where they’re fed on organic grain rather than allowed to graze on grass. “That reduces the nutritional profile of the milk (since grass yields higher beneficial fatty acids) and also can toy with the bovine digestive system (since the animals evolved to eat grass, not grain),” Fromartz writes. “But this regime also yields more milk, the rationale of the confinement model.”

Many small farmers and organic advocates say the pasture loophole needs to be closed to protect the integrity of organic dairy products; Big Dairy, of course, disagrees. Stay tuned to find out how the NOP rules.

Grist thanks its sponsors. Become one.