RamsI used to be a tried-and-true organic fan. My living-in-town self would frequently plead with local store managers to carry more organic products. I made biweekly trips to a food co-op to access a wider variety of organics. And I spent a lot of money on it. I was an organic snob. Now that I farm and see the other side of the equation, I can feel my opinion of the organic movement shifting. It’s more complicated than I originally knew.

A while back, I heard a veterinarian speak, and he expressed frustration with a client who was raising organic beef and was denying his animals basic medical treatment. The client had a rampant problem of internal parasite infections in his cattle, easily diagnosed and treated with anthelmintics. His cattle were dying in significant numbers. From worms. Worms! But the farmer refused to ever treat, even for cows that were confirmed via fecal examinations to be dealing with a heavy parasite load and suffering obvious and severe decline in condition. Reverting back to the ultimate survival of the fittest model, this farmer chose to allow his cows to essentially starve to death while fighting parasite loads they could not handle. All because of his organic certification.

Nature is cruel, but we don’t have to be.

This study got press recently, exposing that most eggs labeled USDA Organic, while produced using organic feed, did not house or manage the chickens in any manner different from regular factory farming. The chickens were fed great food, but lived in terrible conditions. What’s going on?

Ethical Barriers to Organic Certification?

dRamAt Focus on Farming last week, there was a interesting panel discussion on organic vs. conventional farming. A conventional dairy farmer candidly discussed the barriers he saw to converting to organic. In addition to issues with weed control and expense, his biggest concern was animal welfare decisions. He explained that with dairy cows, his goal is to have them live long and productive lives. If one gets sick or injured, he treats it. If he were an organic farmer, he would either a) shoot the cow or b) keep two herds, one organic, and one not. In the latter system, sick animals convert to the non-organic herd where they can be brought to recovery using modern medicine.

This has been a big issue on my mind. I might consider organic certification if I thought it would open up new markets to me. I don’t mind the idea of extra paperwork, I’m good at that. Not using herbicides is do-able for our situation. But this issue of veterinary treatment for me is huge. I need to be able to give my animals medication, if my judgment deems that they need it for comfort, recovery or for downright survival. It’s not affordable or feasible to involve a vet most of the time (and we don’t have any sheep vets here anymore anyways).

Stuff happens to livestock. They get cuts that won’t heal in the dirt, some of them struggle to cope with parasites, shipping fever, foot rot, viruses, pregnancy toxemia, and the like. Sure, good management practices, like keeping them in low stress environments and feeding them good food, bolsters their immune systems so illness is less common. And it’s uncommon for me, the large majority of my sheep do great with no intervention. But it still happens. And certainly, when choosing breeding stock, you select for the most vigorous animals that don’t succumb easily to infection, pneumonia and parasites. But in the meantime, what do you do with the ones that do need help?

From the Horse’s Mouth

ChickenNestingI went to the WSDA site to find out what the regulations say. First off, the say right out, The producer of an organic livestock operation must not: … Withhold medical treatment from a sick animal in an effort to preserve its organic status. All appropriate medications must be used to restore an animal to health when methods acceptable to organic production fail.

So people who are clinging to organic status and letting animals suffer are in violation of the law and should be reported. But that’s not to say that it doesn’t happen, and maybe a lot, because most of the time, who would know? If consumers pay a lot more for organic products, the motivation to breach this ethical boundary is, well, financially significant. Treat this lamb’s infected cut with antibiotics and shave $150 off my profit margin, or let him take his chances? That’s a decision I don’t want rattling around in my head every day. Veterinarians who witness questionable practices are in the conundrum, report them and lose all my organic customers, or keep mum?

This sentence being included in the law indicates a couple of things. The fact that they have to say it highlights that the problem is real. And it’s an outright admission that though we hold up these organic values, they break down when an animal is really, really sick; and that the right thing to do is to medicate. The law, itself, is conflicted on this issue. As am I.

Eighteen Synthetic Substances

MedsSection 205.603 cites Synthetic substances allowed for use in organic livestock production. Here is “the list” of meds you can use which are internal (there is a separate list for topicals, and I’ve deleted the things listed for use in disinfection):

(1)Aspirin-approved for health care use to reduce inflammation.
(2) Atropine (used with anasthesia): with vet Rx and 56 day withdrawal for meat animals, 12 days for milk
(3) Biologics—Vaccines.
(4) Butorphanol (pain med): with vet Rx and withdrawal time for 42 days, 8 days for milk
(5) Chlorhexidine—Allowed for surgical procedures conducted by a veterinarian.
(6) Electrolytes—without antibiotics.
(7) Flunixin (NSAID- Banamine) withdrawal two times what the FDA requires
(8) Furosemide (diuretic) withdrawal two times what the FDA requires
(9) Glucose.
(10) Hydrogen peroxide.
(11) Iodine.
(12) Magnesium hydroxide (Milk of Magnesia) with vet Rx
(13) Magnesium sulfate (Epsom salts)
(14) Oxytocin (triggers labor) -use in postparturition therapeutic applications.
(15) Paraciticides. Ivermectin only, in breeding stock only, not during last third of gestation. 90 day withdrawal for milk.
(16) Poloxalene only for emergency treatment of bloat
(17) Tolazoline with vet Rx, only to reverse sedation, withdrawal 8 days, 4 days for milk
(18) Xylazine (pain, sedation) with vet Rx, only for emergencies, withdrawal 8 days, 4 days for milk

So that’s it: eighteen “drugs”- 7 of which are on grocery store shelves, and the stronger ones you can’t use on animals in the slaughter channel at all. And Ivermectin, the king of over-used and now useless anthelmintics is the only option for de-worming breeding stock. Sure, there are some herbal and natural alternatives available- homeopathy, maybe. And those are always worth trying for mild cases. But shoot, sometimes an animal is downright sick or severely injured, and modern medicine offers a straightforward cure. Why would we be so afraid to use it in a short-term, isolated case? After all, the organic law says wee have to!

Is this really the label we were after?

TurkeysThis whole thing seems like an overreaction to me. We’re reacting to an industry that has gone way too far in the wrong direction- using antibiotics daily as a preventative or growth stimulant, feeding questionable feeds. Nobody wants that in their food, in their bodies. So instead the consumer demand pendulum swings to the other extreme: no drugs, ever, even if the animal is desperately ill.

But at what cost? The waste of prematurely slaughtered animals, which probably go into the pet food channel, at best? Dairy animals and breeding stock culled in their prime over treatable infections or worm loads that ineffective Ivermectin can no longer address? Farmers turning the other way when an animal is suffering, choosing profits over ethics? No wonder organic is expensive, you have to pay for all the extra animals that die, animals that could have been saved with a $5 drug!

Not to mention, this whole discussion is a conversation for the wealthy: ordinary people, cultures and countries can’t afford organic. So, those who can afford organic push the undesirables, the once medicated animals, to the poorer people to eat. So now it’s a double whammy ethical breach. I don’t want yuk in my body, so I will make the choice that animals should suffer so I can avoid consuming yuk even in possibly trivial quantities. And go ahead and feed the yuk to the poor, as long as I don’t have to eat it, I’m ok with that.

Organic, you aren’t the one I fell in love with anymore…

I have been buying organic stuff for years. In the olden days before organic labeling was regulated, only geeky people knew about organic. It felt safer to assume there was some geek on the other end, carefully farming away applying the same values I hold. And for heavens sake, providing his animals with pharmaceuticals when they really needed it. But lately I feel like my eyes are being opened, now that organic is a billion dollar industry and the politically-manipulated USDA has taken control of the rules.

I’m feeling queasy about the label. How will I know the farmer or giant corporation didn’t prioritize organic label profits over animal welfare?  How can I trust that they are neither using a staff veterinarian to OK all sorts of unnecessary drug treatments in an end-run around the law, nor making an animal with a raging infection stand around and die a slow death? Can we rely on regulation and inspections alone?

Branding Gone Awry

File:USDA organic seal.svgThat green and white circle brand is starting to trigger mixed emotions in me. My confidence is eroded. I’m certain the grocery stores tracking my buying habits are noticing, she’s waffling on organic now, after all these years. I don’t know whether to reach for it, or steer clear, saving my money and my conscience. Am I the only one, or are others wondering these same things? The FOF conference panel had two organic farmers, and both said that the profit margin on organic is eroding heavily. Is it the economy, or is it consumer confidence?

And I’m not feeling pulled to certify my own farm a this point. Honestly, I’m not sure I’d be proud to join this crowd anymore. Especially with the things I’m hearing, about farms big and small that are tarnishing the reputation of the industry with bad, no-terrible, animal management practices.

Probably what all this means is, if you want to vote with your consumer dollars and make sure animals were raised and cared for according to your ethics, whatever they may be, no government label will meet your needs. The only way to know this is to buy locally, know the farmer, see their farm, and talk to them about their values and philosophies and do your own inspection. Or grow your own animals, so you know for sure what went into them and how they were treated.