By Ari LeVaux
Proponents of small farms and organic watchdog groups found themselves in unfamiliar waters recently: cheering the USDA for tightening the definitions of organic meat and dairy. On February 12th the agency passed what some are calling the most sweeping rewrite of federal organic standards since their inception in 2002.
The ruling, called Access to Pasture, closes several loopholes that mega-dairies have been using to exploit the organic market with milk from farms that hardly resemble the farms that inspired the now $24.6 billion organic industry.
The ruling also leaves wide open a huge question on feeding restrictions -- or lack thereof -- for organic beef cows. A 60-day comment period is open until April 19.
Access to Pasture mandates organic meat and dairy cattle must graze for the entirety of the growing season, with a minimum of 120 days spent on pasture. At least 30 percent of total annual caloric intake must come from grazing.
This is a huge blow to certain mega dairies that for years had taken advantage of the previous rule that only required organic cows to have "access to pasture." This famously ambiguous phrase was often interpreted along the lines of a barn door opening to a muddy side yard.
Clarifying "access to pasture" has been under discussion at USDA since 1994, and a rule similar to the current form was first formally introduced in 2005. Bush's USDA people managed to stall the process through a variety of tactics, some of which are currently under investigation. When the first draft was opened for public comments, 80,327 were lodged, of which 28 were in favor of clarifying the phrase "access to pasture."
In addition to clarifying the pasturing requirements for cattle, Access to Pasture tightens up several other cracks in the definition of organic. It expands and strengthens the language prohibiting antibiotics in organic feed, requires that any edible bedding (like straw or corn cobs) be certified organic, and mandates that pasture be managed as a crop -- as in, to produce abundant forage.
Much of new ruling's 160 pages consist of comments on the language and content of the various items. The comments are organized and discussed, with USDA offering its agreement or disagreement. Of the 26,970 public comments USDA received, 26,000 were in support of more pasture time for organic cattle. All but 130 of the comments came from three modified form letters.
Many were skeptical of Obama's appointment of former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack for Secretary of Agriculture. Vilsack's cozy relationship with corporate agribusiness earned him "Governor of the Year" by the Biotechnology Industry Organization.
One of the first moves Secretary Vilsack made was ripping up the Plaza in front of the USDA building in Washington and installing a certified organic garden. He then recommended to all the USDA facilities around the country that they do the same. Then Vilsack appointed Kathleen Merrigan to deputy administrator, the USDA #2 spot. She's credited with writing the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990, in which Congress gave the USDA authority to oversee the organic industry.
While organic cheerleaders appear to have much to celebrate about the USDA, some more business will soon be finished that will say a lot about where the USDA is really going, and how great our hand is in guiding it.
Public comment just ended on the USDA's December, 2009 determination that Monsanto's GE alfalfa seed meets the Obama Administration's standards -- despite the agency's acknowledgement the alfalfa is likely to cross contaminate with non-GE alfalfa. The public comments so far on this determination have been overwhelmingly against allowing this contagious alfalfa to be planted. It creates an interesting showdown between Vilsack's biotech interests and the newly comment-friendly agency he leads.
Another looming question mark is what will replace the National Animal Identification System (NAIS) proposal, which was recently scrapped in another cheerable moment for Small Ag. NAIS had threatened to force all livestock farmers, great and small -- especially small -- to keep painstaking and expensive records of their animals. What regulatory mechanism for improving food safety and animal welfare will replace NAIS is an open question.
And finally, the burning item of business that Access to Pasture left unresolved for another 60 days: "We are requesting comments on the exceptions for finish feeding of ruminant slaughter stock."
As it stands, USDA exempts beef cattle from the requirement that 30 percent of nutrition comes from forage for 120 days prior to slaughter. In essence, this exemption allows organic cows to be confined and fed grain for four months prior to slaughter, also known as feedlot finishing. Access to Pasture observes, "The sentiment among most of the commenters is that there is no place in organic agriculture for the confinement feeding of animals nor should there be any exception for ruminant slaughter stock."
If that pattern holds, writing on the wall says the organic feedlot exception should end. But if the exception is upheld and organic beef is allowed to be finished in confinement, that would not only cast doubt on what appears to be a newly inclusive and democratic USDA, it would be a blow to several key aspects of organic livestock production in Merrigan's book. Confined feeding goes against the organic tenet that animals be allowed to express their true nature, and feeding grain to animals not only produces a different kind of meat that's much less healthy, it's also much more energy intensive and environmentally destructive.
Perhaps the real discussion shouldn't even be whether or not organic steers can be confined and grain fed for the last 120 days of their lives. The discussion should be over whether organic cattle should be fed any grain at all. Or should they just eat hay and straw when the grazing season ends?
You can read the new rule here -- see page 2-3 for instructions on commenting on the organic feedlot rule.