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Wednesday, April 24, 2024

Guest Opinion: Organic Foods

In response to the May 5 EPPC commentary on organic foods, the issue of whether organic produce benefits the well-being of the environment and livestock is not so clear cut. I am a senior with a minor in aAnimal sScience lLivestock/dDairy pProduction, and I grew up on a beef cattle ranch. From my classroom as well as personal experience, I believe that sustainable agriculture and animal welfare are not always best obtained by strict adherence to organic production practices. In fact, there are a number of ways that organic production methods are actually worse for the environment and for the welfare of livestock.

The EPPC commentary stated “pesticides…are very detrimental to human health and animal well-being.” While overuse of pesticides is an environmental problem, pesticides in general actually improve animal welfare, since they are often used to control pests that adversely impact the welfare of livestock. Especially in the summertime, cattle are bothered by many different species of bloodsucking flies unless they are provided some sort of relief. Currently, one of the most effective fly control methods is to use some pesticide products. By comparison, most humans use pesticides in mosquito repellent.

The article continued with the following claim: “Thirdly, organic farmers do not use breeding hormones, meaning their animals live in less stressful environments and the food that results has less harmful chemicals.” Hormone use does not actually cause animals stress and should not adversely impact animal welfare. Also, levels of antibiotics and hormones are carefully regulated to prevent residues in meat and milk. In fact, a serving of lettuce contains far more estrogen than a serving of beef! Additionally, many hormones are peptide (protein-based) hormones, so even if humans ingested large amounts, the hormones would be digested as any other protein and would not be harmful.

“Fourthly, organic farms refrain from using antibiotics, choosing to rely on natural measures to promote good animal health.” It is true that organic producers use natural treatments instead of antibiotics, and sometimes these natural treatments are effective in preventing or curing illness. However, requiring organic producers to avoid antibiotics can give producers an economic incentive to refrain from medicating animals that perhaps should be medicated. Livestock are subject to a number of diseases, many of which cause them to suffer if not treated effectively. For example, beef cattle often get pinkeye, which is a bacterial infection that causes a painful ulcer to develop on their eye and can lead to blindness if not treated. Organic beef cattle are treated for pinkeye; however, organic pinkeye treatments are not as effective as using antibiotics.

Organic cattle can also suffer from a number of treatable parasites, both internal and external, such as a common parasitic fly that can be easily treated by administering a safe wormer (ivermectin, commonly used for preventing heartworm in dogs) once a year. Nonetheless, ivermectin is not organic, so it cannot be used in an organic system. Healthy, parasite-free cattle can literally grow twice as fast as cattle with a heavy parasite load, making the production of beef more efficient and environmentally friendly when the animals are effectively treated for parasites. Insisting on organic production methods can mean turning back the clock on technology that improves animal welfare and increases production.

Finally, organic milk or beef production actually produces more greenhouses gases per unit of food than conventional systems. Taking dairy production as an example, industry estimates for average milk production are about 40 to 50 pounds of milk per cow per day for organic cows but about 70 to 85 pounds of milk per cow per day for conventionally raised dairy cows. If an organic cow averages 45 pounds of milk per day and a conventional cow averages 75 pounds of milk per day, the organic cow produces about 40 percent less than the conventional cow. This means one and two-thirds organic cows would be needed to produce the same amount of milk as one conventional cow.

However, the methane output per cow is about the same for both organic and conventional systems. Thus, organic milk production, when compared to conventional milk production, can result in a more than 50 percent increase in greenhouse gases produced per gallon of milk. Also, conventional milk is often higher quality than organic milk, due in part to the cows being less likely to have subclinical mastitis (a low-grade udder infection).

While it is great that many people care enough about sustainable agriculture to buy organic produce, it is important to realize that the issues are not clear-cut. Adhering to organic practices can have unintended negative effects on an animal’s well being and on the environment. Additionally, agricultural producers following conventional production practices have worked to improve the efficiency and sustainability of production as well as the health and well being of livestock.

Kristen Perano

Biological Systems Engineering


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