Monday, February 1, 2010

What is Organic Milk, and Why Should You Care?

I've been following Ruth Reichel on Twitter for a while since I heard her speak about the demise of Gourmet Magazine, the incredible work done there during her tenure as Editor in Chief, and her thoughts on the future of food, food writing and food politics. Today, her feed led me to a great blog, Politics Of  The Plate. Food politics is definitely something that I have been thinking about for a while.  Where does our food come from?  Who makes it?  How is it made?  Is it safe?  Is it ethically produced, and what does that mean?  As the world's population grows and resources remain finate (or until we figure out how to make that Star Trek Food Replicator), I believe that these issues will remain with us, and become more and more important.

Anyway, the January 27 post on Politics of the Plate is about how big Agribusiness has taken control of the word organic. In theory, organic milk comes from cows who have "room to roam, clean air to breathe [and] fresh grass to eat."  Makes sense.  Unfortunately, the same way that most "free range" chickens probably don't have the opportunity to visit the small outdoor pen attached to the side of their giant, packed, indoor jail instead of roaming freely, pecking at grubs and enjoying sunshine on their feathers, many "organic" milk cows don't really have access to pasture in the traditional sense.  They might be outdoors, but they are probably walking around in dirt, not pasture land.  They might be eating grass, if you consider dried fodder as grass-like.  (There is one dairy that claims pastureland by laying hay on the dirt on a strip of land outside their giant barn)  They might be organic in the sense that they aren't pumped through with chemicals, but there is no way that they are the happy cows taking time to chew their cud while enjoying  a little clover, alfalfa and dandelion as part of their nutritious grass lunch we all dream of when we bite into a delicious piece of Avonlea Cheddar.

There are a few problems here that I can see (beyond the fact that it just isn't very nice to the animals!).   When big dairies are allowed to blur the lines regarding what constitutes "pastureland," dedicated family farms that have invested in their "staff" of cows and really believe and follow the tenants of organic farming just can't compete.  The cost of raising a truly happy organic cow on green pastures is astronomical compared with the cost of cows that might or might not get to go outside, and might or might not actually get to eat real grass every day.  Plus, the little guy might have 80 cows and the big guy has 2,000.  Economies of scale just don't tip in favor of the little guy.  I'm like you.  I'd love to buy the organic milk at the farmer's market, but man-o-man is it expensive.  I feel like I'm still being healthy if I'm buying Horizon brand organic milk on sale.  Problem is, buying like that is making the problem worse.  (And depending on why you are buying organic milk, you might be getting ripped off!)   (dairy image courtesy of Wikipedia)

Problem number two is an issue of taste!  I'm always writing about how I can taste the spring grass freshness in a cheese.  You can't get that if the cows don't actually eat fresh spring grass on a hillside somewhere.  If big agribusiness manages to shut down more and more small truly organic dairies, there will be less and less delicious milk lightly scented with daisies to make amazing cheese.  And that would really be a crying shame.

Anyway, there is a bill before the federal Office of Management and Budget to make the rules more specific regarding what is considered organic.  Needless to say, the big guys want to kill the bill to make a buck. Politics being what they are, who knows what will happen.  If you have time, definitely visit Politics of the Plate to learn more about what is going on, and get links to more great information.

And thanks for listening.

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