This piece, written by Jackie Avner and published in the Denver Post, is going to have organic advocates steaming:
REASONS YOU SHOULD BUY REGULAR GOODS
I don’t like to buy organic food products, and avoid them at all cost. It is a principled decision reached through careful consideration of effects of organic production practices on animal welfare and the environment. I buy regular food, rather than organic, for the benefit of my family.
I care deeply about food being plentiful, affordable and safe. I grew up on a dairy farm, where my chores included caring for the calves and scrubbing the milking facilities. As a teenager, I was active in Future Farmers of America, and after college I took a job in Washington, D.C., on the Senate Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry Committee staff.
But America no longer has an agrarian economy, and now it is rare for people to have firsthand experience with agricultural production and regulation. This makes the general public highly susceptible to rumors and myths about food, and vulnerable to misleading marketing tactics designed not to improve the safety of the food supply, but to increase retail profits. Companies marketing organic products, and your local grocery chain, want you to think organic food is safer and healthier, because their profit margins are vastly higher on organic foods.
The USDA Organic label does not mean that there is any difference between organic and regular food products. Organic farms simply employ different methods of food production. For example, organic dairy farms are not permitted to administer antibiotics to their sick or injured cows, and do not give them milk-stimulating hormone supplements (also known as rbGH or rBST). The end product is exactly the same — all milk, regular and organic, is completely antibiotic-free, and all milk, regular and organic, has the same trace amounts of rbGH (since rbGH is a protein naturally present in all cows, including organic herds). Try as they may, proponents of organic foods have not been able to produce evidence that the food produced by conventional farms is anything but safe.
Do organic production practices benefit animals? Dr. Chuck Guard, professor of veterinary medicine at Cornell University, told me that it pains him that many technological advancements in animal medicine are prohibited for use on organic farms. He described how organic farms don’t use drugs to control parasites, worms, infections and illness in their herds. “Drugs take away pain and suffering,” he said. “Proponents of organic food production have thrown away these medical tools, and the result is unnecessary pain and suffering for the animals.”
In order for milk and meat to qualify as USDA Organic, the animals must never be given antibiotics when they are sick or injured. On organic farms, animals with treatable illnesses such as infections and pneumonia are left to suffer, or given ineffective homeopathic treatments, in the hope that they will eventually get better on their own. If recovery without medication seems unlikely, a dairy cow with a simple respiratory infection will be slaughtered for its meat, or sold to a traditional farm where she can get the medicine she needs. I don’t buy organic milk because this system is cruel to animals, and I know that every load of regular milk is tested for antibiotics to ensure that it is antibiotic-free.
Organic milk certainly is not fresher than regular milk. Regular milk is pasteurized and has a shelf life of about 20 days. Organic milk is ultrapasteurized, a process that is more forgiving of poor quality milk, and that increases the shelf life of milk to about 90 days. Some of the Horizon organic milk boxes I’ve seen at Costco have expiration dates in 2008! There is a powerful incentive for retailers to put the ultrapasteurized organic milk on the shelf just before the expiration date, so consumers will think the organic milk is as fresh as the regular milk. After all, consumers are paying twice as much for the organic product.
Do organic production practices benefit the environment? In many cases, they do the opposite. Recently, Starbucks proudly informed their customers that they would no longer be buying milk from farms that use rbGH, the supplemental hormone administered to cows to increase milk production (even though the extra hormones stay in the cow, and the resulting milk is the same). The problem with this policy is that Starbucks will now be buying milk from farms that are far less efficient at making milk. Without the use of the latest technology for making milk, many more cows must be milked to produce the same number of café lattes for Starbucks’ customers. More cows being milked means more cows to feed, and therefore more land must be cultivated with fossil-fuel-burning tractors. More cows means many more tons of manure produced, and more methane, a greenhouse gas, released into the atmosphere.
I see Starbucks’ policy as environmentally irresponsible. When a farmer gives a cow a shot of rbGH, the only environmental cost is the disposal of the small plastic container it came in. But the environmental benefits of using this technology are enormous.
Attention all shoppers: Safeway is adopting the same misdirected policy as Starbucks, judging from the prominent labeling of milk at my local Safeway store: “Milk from cows not treated with rBST.” When I’m feeling particularly green, I drive past Safeway and shop at another grocery store in protest.
Consumers assume that organic crops are environmentally friendly. However, organic production methods are far less efficient than the modern methods used by conventional farmers, so organic farmers must consume more natural and man-made resources (such as land and fuel) to produce their crops.
Cornell Professor Guard told me about neighboring wheat farms he observed during a visit to Alberta, Canada: one organic and one conventional. The organic farm consumes six times as much diesel fuel per bushel of wheat produced.
Socially conscious consumers have a right to know that “organic” doesn’t mean what it did 20 years ago. According to the Oct. 16, 2006, cover story in Business Week, when you eat Stonyfield Farms yogurt, you are often consuming dried organic milk flown all the way from New Zealand and reconstituted here in the U.S. The apple puree used to sweeten the yogurt sometimes comes from Turkey, and the strawberries from China. Importation of organic products raises troubling questions about food safety, labor standards, and the fossil fuels burned in the transportation of these foods.
Does buying organic really benefit your family? Remember, there is no real difference in the food itself. At my local Safeway store, organic milk is 85 percent more expensive, eggs 138 percent higher, yogurt 50 percent, chicken thighs 80 percent, and broccoli 20 percent. If the only organic product you buy for your family is milk, then you are spending an extra $200 on milk each year. If you buy 5-10 other organic products each week, such as fruits, vegetables, eggs, yogurt and meat, then you could easily approach $1,000 in extra food costs per year. Families would receive a more direct health benefit from spending that money on a gym membership, a treadmill, or new bikes.
When I share this information with friends who buy organic, I get one of two responses: they either stop buying it, or they continue to buy organic based on a strong gut feeling that food grown without the assistance of man- made technology has to be healthier.
I don’t push it, but I wonder: Why do people apply that logic to agricultural products, but not to every other product we use in our daily lives? There are either no chemicals, or the minutest trace of chemicals in some of our foods. But other everyday products are full of chemical ingredients. Read the label on your artificial sweetener, antiperspirant, sun lotion, toothpaste, household cleaning products, soda, shampoo, and disposable diapers, for example. The medicines we administer to our children when they are sick are man-made substances. Chemicals aren’t just used to make these products; they are still in these products in significant amounts. It just doesn’t make sense to focus fear of technology on milk and fresh produce.
I say, bypass the expensive organic products in the grocery store. Buy the regular milk, meat and fresh produce. It is the right choice for the family, animal welfare and the environment.
The newspaper made a decision to not identify the author in any way other than by city of residence and allow her argument to stand on its own, but the family business is bound to cause more controversy:
In 1995, after several years of research in allergy and immunology, Dr. David Avner developed the idea of creating “allergen-free” pets through genetic engineering. Dr. Avner proposed to use gene and gene product targeting to “knock-out” or “suppress” known allergens at the cellular level. The resulting animals no longer produce or secrete the functional allergen.
Shortly thereafter, Dr. Avner submitted a patent application to the U.S. Patent and Trade Office, which has been “cleared of all prior art” and paved the way for the development of allergen-free pets.
Transgenic Pets, LLC, was created in 2000 to explore the development of hypo-allergenic pets and other therapeutic applications of gene targeting in animals. Felix Pets, LLC, a division of Transgenic Pets, was incorporated in 2004 for the specific purpose of developing and selling allergen-free cats.
Controversy aside, the article makes a couple of interesting points:
First, when it comes to modern medicine, nobody would consider it being less cruel to a child to not give them the benefits of our medical knowledge. We should be careful about imagining nature as some kind of idyll, and withholding the benefit of modern medicine from animals is more likely to be cruel than to be kind.
Second, it is impossible to determine the environmental impact of organic growing techniques without also knowing the yield that will actually be produced. Nothing is likely to be “environmentally friendly” if we have to use a lot more land, water, etc. to produce the same quantity.
What organic advocates will hate about this piece is that most objections voiced to organic are pragmatic — too expensive — or neutral — a valid consumer choice. This author comes out and offers a substantive and moral objection to organics. That will be more than many advocates will be able to tolerate.