The USDA is considering a rule that would help close loopholes, but it doesn’t go far enough. Action Alert!
The USDA’s National Organic Program (NOP) has reopened the comment period on the 2015 Origin of Livestock proposed rule that attempts to prevent large, industrial dairy and cattle operations from gaming the system. While the rule proposes positive steps, it needs to be strengthened significantly to level the playing field for small farmers and protect the integrity of the organic label.
There are two key issues. The first deals with organic milk. In organic regulations, there is a provision that allows the one-time conversion of a conventional dairy herd to an organic herd. The intent of this rule was to allow a farmer the flexibility to transition his or her operation from conventional to organic. This provision has been abused by industrial “organic” dairies that continuously transition non-organic cows to organic. This continuous transitioning of animals allows these industrial producers to grow their dairy herds more quickly and less expensively than farmers doing the right thing, enabling them to flood the market with cheap “organic” milk.
This unlevel playing field has decimated small and mid-sized organic dairies. More than half of the 125,000 dairy farms (organic and conventional) that operated in the US in 1997 have disappeared. Fifteen thousand have gone under between 2007 and 2017. These smaller operations simply cannot compete with industrial giants that abuse the spirit, if not the letter, of the law.
The second issue involves breeder stock, defined in organic regulation as “female livestock whose offspring may be incorporated into an organic operation at the time of their birth.” Breeder stock can be used to diversify the genetic pool of a herd. Under organic regulations, a non-organic cow can give birth to organic calves if the mother is under organic management from the last third of gestation. Note that conventional livestock that have transitioned to organic cannot be sold as organic slaughter—only their calves who have been under organic management since the last third of gestation can be sold as organic.
Once again, industrial concentrated animal feeding lots (CAFOs) are abusing the rule by cycling breeder stock between organic and conventional production. This is particularly a concern with hogs. CAFOs can raise a hog non-organically—that is, on GMO feed, with the use of drugs and other substances prohibited in organic production—until she is pregnant with a litter. The hog can then transition to organic management until she gives birth. The offspring are organic, and the mother is transitioned back to the non-organic sector. Again, this lowers the cost for CAFOs to produce organic livestock and puts smaller farms following the spirit of organic agriculture at a competitive disadvantage.
The NOP’s proposed rule addresses the first issue but not the second. It amends organic regulations such that the one-time conversion of conventional to organic dairy cows applies to each producer, rather than a herd; this change will prohibit the continuous transitioning currently going on in CAFOs. Some have suggested that the term “producer” should be replaced with “certified operation” for clarity, since the latter term is more commonly used and understood in the industry.
The rule should be strengthened to prohibit the cycling of breeder stock. Like the above change, NOP could amend the rule by stipulating that breeder stock can be transitioned only once to organic to prohibit the cycling back and forth, as this practice undermines the basic concept of organic herd health.
The NOP can and must make these changes. Not only are the above-mentioned abuses unfair to small producers who take seriously the philosophy of organic agriculture; they are unfair to consumers who are unwittingly paying a premium for sham organic products from CAFOs that are gaming the system. Unfortunately, as we’ve seen with other fraudulent practices in the organic system, the USDA seems perfectly fine with turning a blind eye to the abuses of Big Ag. We cannot allow it to continue.
Action Alert! Write to Congress and the NOP, demanding that the Origin of Livestock rule is strengthened before it is completed and implemented. Please send your message immediately.