Organic needs to do what people think we’re doing

By Jim Munsch — There is an ongoing struggle within organic dairy about the direction of the industry’s production and business models. The debate seems to center on whether or not the details of systems to produce milk should be strongly influenced by customers.

Grazing is central to the struggle. All advertising, packaging and commentary from organic milk marketers show cows contentedly munching grass on pasture, even though not all organic milk comes from farms where grazing is important to the production system.

This is interesting to me as an organic beef grazier and beef seller, because the organic milk industry is the leader in organic animal agriculture. It is the largest segment, has saved the most small farms, made the biggest impact at the retail level, gets huge press space and, outside of fruits and vegetables, is the product foremost in the minds of most organic food eaters.

Is it really necessary that organic cows graze? Do the people buying organic dairy products really want to know, and will this knowledge influence their purchases? This is the core of the debate. Two articles that came to our mailbox in the last couple of weeks illustrate this struggle.

The first was in a conventional agriculture journal here in Wisconsin, which detailed a talk to the Wisconsin Cheese Industry Conference by Rusty Bishop, director of the University of Wisconsin Center for Dairy Research. Bishop challenged six major claims he believes are made for organic milk.

He cited research concluding that organic milk is equal to conventional around five claims (nutrient level, pesticide residue, levels of antioxidants, antimicrobial resistance and safety), and slightly inferior to conventional around one (levels of mycotoxins due lack of pesticide treatment of organic grain). Bishop’s bottom line was that organic milk and conventional milk are virtually the same. He did point to the science that milk from grazed animals is healthier (higher levels of omega-3, CLA and antioxidants), but does not draw a connection from that to organic producers using more grazing than conventional farmers.

This is not surprising, because the organic rules are weak in requiring meaningful grazing, with phrases such as “access to pasture for ruminants” and “…ration composed of agricultural products including pasture and forage.” The majority of the pioneering organic milk producers understand what has to be done, and embrace grazing. But with strong demand and enticing prices, a clever confinement dairy can work around those rules in the blink of an eye and with a straight face, as long as that farm has the right USDA-approved certifying group. It is obvious to anyone reading the agricultural press and the related blogs that a lot of the new organic milk comes from such operations.

Contrast Bishop’s talk to an article the same week in Newsweek magazine by Wolfgang Puck, the celebrity chef, in which Puck makes the case for his commitment and recommendation to use only organic ingredients in preparing meals. His rationale is that organic animals are more humanely raised with “…sunshine on their backs and grass under their feet.” He said these animals are raised by farmers who allow them to eat grass.

Puck’s comments focus on how the food product is produced, as well as the product itself. They are an affirmation for people who have chosen organic food. These consumers look at both the product and the production system in making choices.

The two articles offer a great comparison of the two sides of the debate in the organic world. In pronouncing food “good” or “bad,” the mainstream food industry employs equations that center on safety and “wholesomeness” produced from science dispensed by universities, commercial food or agricultural enterprises, and three government agencies. In other words, it focuses on the end product. The consumer is expected to believe all of this, and be comfortable. Most are. It is this angle that Bishop is addressing.

Puck is looking at something more than the end result, as the production system also matters to him, and many other organic consumers.

It is interesting that Bishop’s talk was given to conventional dairy producers and processors, while Puck’s comments were aimed at eaters. Was Bishop’s presentation more scientific than Puck’s? Of course. Was Puck’s more persuasive to some eaters? By a long shot.

While the organic food industry has end-product verification to a certain degree with the USDA organic rules, it seems obvious that organic producers and marketers must stay very tuned to the desires of organic consumers who want to know how their food was produced.

If organic dairy producers are not doing what Puck says they are doing, then there is definitely trouble ahead. In my opinion, there are some issues organic producers need to address in both product quality and providing a “sellable” production system:

1. There are scientifically proven benefits to milk products and meat from grazed animals. This can become a proven means of exceeding the quality of conventional products. Organic should mean that ruminants are grazed -truly and meaningfully grazed. Also, grazing can lower production costs in geographic areas where grass grows well.

2. The humane treatment story is one that is waiting to be strengthened and then told to eaters. Its time has come, and the story will be a lot easier to tell in a grazing-based system. Also, organic ruminant animal health is more easily sustained in a properly managed grazing system.

3. Where food comes from will gain in importance. Organic labeling is important, and so is immediate implementation of country of origin labeling (COOL), because someplace along the line eaters are going to put the dog food/wheat germ/melamine/China story together, and reject even organic food if it is from a suspicious country of origin.

The supply chain of producers, processors, and retailers that put all that together will maintain the faith and loyalty of their consumer/eaters. They will be rewarded with increased market share and premium prices. Those who do not will ultimately sell “commodity” organic with prices close to those of conventional product.

Do organic dairy’s customers want to know if their milk is being produced by grazing cows? No doubt the answer is yes.

Jim Munsch grazes organic-certified beef cattle near Coon Valley, Wisconsin.