Grass-based Organic Dairy Farms Promote Cow Health, Milk Quality, and Lighten the Environmental Footprint of Dairy Farming
“A Dairy Farm’s Footprint: Evaluating the Impacts of Conventional and Organic Farming Systems” was released November 11, 2010, along with the Excel-based “Shades of Green” calculator used to compare the performance of organic and conventional dairy farms.
The report is the first to quantify the ways that cow health and longevity impact the environmental impacts of dairy farming. It also projects the many benefits associated with placing less stress on cows and feeding them healthier, forage-based diets.
Key findings and conclusions include:
- The average cow on organic dairy farms provides milk through twice as many, markedly shorter lactations and lives 1.5 to 2 years longer than cows on high-production conventional dairies;
- Because cows live and produce milk longer on organic farms, milking cow replacement rates are 30% to 46% lower, reducing the feed required and wastes generated by heifers raised as replacement animals;
- Cows on organic farms require 1.8 to 2.3 breeding attempts per calf carried to term, compared to 3.5 attempts on conventional farms;
- The enhanced nutritional quality of milk from cows on forage based diets, and in particular Jersey cows, significantly reduces the volume of wastes generated on organic dairy farms; and
- The manure management systems common on most organic farms reduce manure methane emissions by 60% to 80%, and manure plus enteric methane emissions by 25% to 45%.
Reducing methane emissions is a critical goal for all dairy farmers because this greenhouse gas is 25-times more potent than CO2 in global warming potential.
The report also notes that gross milk and meat sales revenues are about 50% higher per year of a cow’s life on organic dairy farms, largely because of significantly greater milk revenue. Over the last five years, organic dairy farmers have received, on average, a premium of $10.98 per hundredweight of milk.
A team of dairy specialists worked with TOC to build the “Shades of Green” (SOG) dairy farm calculator that was used to make the projections summarized in the new report.
The Center released free of charge on November 11th the SOG calculator, the full model results comparing representative organic and conventional farms, and a 92-page users manual providing detailed documentation and user instructions for the SOG calculator.
The Center is proud to share the first comprehensive analysis of the environmental footprint of alternative dairy farm management systems based on a fully described and freely disclosed, operational model.
Klaas Martens, a farmer in New York and one of the 14 report co-authors, predicted that, “This report and the SOG calculator will help all dairy farmers better understand how to improve both cow health and their bottom line, while also doing a better job reducing the environmental impact of dairy farming.”
The principal funding for the development of the SOG calculator and this report was provided by a grant from the Packard Foundation.
This Critical Issue Report, the SOG calculator, and the user manual are available at www.organic-center.org/SOG_Home.
Study Concludes that Organic Vegetables are No Healthier than Conventional Vegetables Despite Results Suggesting Otherwise
A team of Danish researchers are conducting long-term organic research on a series of experimental farms using various combinations of production practices that are acceptable under Danish organic certification rules.
The organic plots in this study all involve odd combinations of fertilization and cover cropping practices that would generally not be found on commercial organic farms, for reasons that become obvious after a careful review of the methodology section and supporting information.
The authors acknowledge that the nitrogen available to the plants in several of the organic plots was suboptimal, and well below the level provided in the conventional plots. Inadequate use of cover crops, manure, and other organically acceptable methods to satisfy a crop’s nitrogen needs resulted in onion and potato yields 35%-50% lower in the organic versus conventional plots.
The study involved three crops – onions, carrots, and potatoes. It focused narrowly on just a few polyphenols in these fresh vegetables and did not test for, or report any measures of total antioxidant activity, the most important measure of whether production system changes impact micro-nutrient density.
While the experiment was carried out over four sites and two years, there were significant differences across the four sites in key soil characteristics.
Because of the small sample sizes and significant year-to-year and location variability, the authors report in the study abstract no statistically significant differences in onion and carrot nutrient content, but curiously do not mention whether differences were noted in potatoes.
In the abstract and press materials, the team report that “...it cannot be concluded that organically grown onions, carrots, and potatoes generally have higher contents of health-promoting secondary metabolites...”
The team states this conclusion, with no other comment on differences that were found. Data in Figures 3 and 4 clearly show significantly higher levels of the polyphenol 5-CQA in organic carrots in one of the two years, and higher levels of phenolic acids in organic potatoes across all locations and years.
None of the locations or years showed higher levels of any nutrient in the conventional plots.
Source: Soltoft, M., et al., 2010, “Effects of Organic and Conventional Growth Systems on the Content of Flavonoids in Onions and Phenolic Acids in Carrots and Potatoes,” Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, Vol. 58: 10232-10329, Sept. 22.
Editor’s Note: This appears to be a carefully conducted study based on a flawed experimental design. The differences in soil types and fertility levels are so significant across research locations that it is questionable whether the results should be pooled across locations.
Moreover, the organic systems studied were developed by researchers in an effort to understand the impacts of core organic system practices, singly or in combinations, under experiment station conditions.
While it may be true that the practices used were allowed under Danish organic certification rules, this does not mean that the systems studied utilized the core practices used on well-managed commercial organic farms, and indeed, clearly the systems did not.
As a result, the results are not really relevant in projecting differences in nutrient content in organic vegetables in the EU marketplace.
The selective reporting of results is hard to understand. The data reported across the crops and locations support a conclusion that the organic production systems did not consistently increase nutrient levels, but the data also show that differences in nutrient levels were found and that those differences always favoured the organic production system.
Media coverage of this study then compounded the inaccuracies in the summary of the study’s results by taking the conclusions a huge step further. Typically headlines and summary paragraphs included statements like “...new study shows no health differences between organic and conventional food...”
Benbrook Wins “The Economist” Online Debate on GMOs and Sustainable Agriculture
The motion advanced by “The Economist” in this November 2-15, 2010 online debate was --“This house believes that biotechnology and sustainable agriculture are complementary, not contradictory.”
The final tally was 38% “yes” in support of the motion and 62% “no,” after heavy voting in the last day triggered the crash of a server supporting the debate website.
TOC’s Chief Scientist Chuck Benbrook argued against the motion and Dr. Pamela Ronald of U.C. Davis argued for it.
“Economist” debates are composed of three written segments running approximately 800 words each. In this debate, opening arguments were posted on November 2, 2010, and triggered over 100 reader comments, some nearly as long as the opening arguments advanced by the debaters.
Rebuttal arguments were posted on November 8th and again led to over 100 reader comments. Closing arguments were posted on November 12th and voting closed on November 13, 2010.
The “Commentary” in this issue of “The Scoop” is Chuck Benbrook’s “Closing Statement” during the debate.
Heavy voting Friday afternoon caused a malfunction in one of the servers supporting the debate, and the Economist’s debate website went offline.
The results were announced via a blog posting.
The full debate, expert commentary from Jeff Moyer of the Rodale Institute, among others, the moderator’s recap at each stage, and the 300-plus reader comments will soon be accessible at the Economist’s under “Past Debates.”
We will have more to say about the debate, the arguments advanced, and the outcome. Stay tuned.
U.K. Dairy Farmer Asserts that “Cows Do Not Belong in Fields”
Peter Willes is one of two U.K. dairy farmers working to win approval of plans to build a 8,100 cow confinement dairy farm in Lincolnshire, a farm that would be by far the U.K.’s largest dairy operation.
In an interview with “The Guardian,” Willes made the provocative assertion that “cows do not belong in fields,” in effect arguing that allowing access to pasture for dairy cows should be regarded as a vestige of a past, inefficient system of milk production.
A public outcry to the initial plan for a 8,100 head confinement dairy has forced the proponents to reduce the scale of the farm. A new proposal provides for access to 4.5 acres for each group of 450 cows for 6-7 hours per day in the summer, a schedule and stocking density that will provide no meaningful role for pasture in meeting the animals’ nutritional needs.
Source: Juliette Jowit, “A tale of two herds,” The Guardian, November 13, 2010
“What Does It Take to Get Kicked Out of the Egg Industry?”
Asked the Christian Science Monitor in a November 11, 2010 story reporting another nearly 300,000 egg recall from a farm linked to Jack DeCoster and Orland Bethel, the same two men “responsible for last summer's 550 million egg recall.”
The salmonella enteritidis contaminated eggs were sold by Cal-Maine, Inc.
According to the CSM, “In June 2000, DeCoster became the first person labeled a “habitual violator” of Iowa’s environmental laws, meaning that his business had already been successfully sued at least three times by the Iowa attorney general.”
World’s Second Largest Supermarket Chain Now Labeling Meat from Animals NOT Fed GM Livestock Feed
The French supermarket Carrefour is now requiring suppliers to label meat and animal products NOT fed genetically engineered (GE) corn and/or soybeans with a “Nourri sans OGM” (“Reared without GM”) label.
Carrefour adopted the new label after 96% of its consumers supporting the need for such labeling and 63% said they would stop purchasing animal products not bearing the label.
Source: Sean Poulter, “Supermarkets urged to follow in the French footsteps and label food that isn’t GM,” The [London] Daily Mail, November 12, 2010
Interesting factoids about food, farming and the environment
Feeding dairy cows one pound of oregano daily can reduce methane emissions by 40%, while increasing milk production by 4%. It does so by reorganizing the bacteria in the cow’s stomach.
Source: Science, Vol. 329, September 24, 2010
A vending machine offering organic food options has been installed in the Longworth House Office Building, at the request of Congressional staff working long hours and wanting healthier food options.
Source: Will Telligman, “Capitol Hill Update,” Organic Trade Association
Up 24% -- U.S. net farm income for 2010.
Up 9.6% -- The value of irrigated cropland in the U.S. rose 9.6% in just the last three months.
Up 58% -- Farmland values since 2000 in inflation-adjusted dollars.
Source: Lauren Etter and Scott Kilman, “Land Becomes a Cash Crop in Farm Belt,” Wall Street Journal, November 12, 2010
Food for Thought
The adult brain uses about 20% of dietary energy and 20% of the oxygeninhaled. Glucose in the brainproduces 18-times more energy in the presence of oxygen.
The human brain contains more fat than any other organ in the human body.
One out of three fatty acids in the nervous system is polyunsaturated and must come from the dietary sources.
One-fourth of average daily dietary energy is dedicated to the activity of just one enzyme crucial for brain function.
Pre-natal deficiency of omega 3 fatty acids increases the odds of glucose intolerance (diabetes) in adulthood.
Dietary shortages of essential long-chain omega 3 fatty acids are serious because it takes a long time for levels to recover in the brain and nervous system.
An infant requires five-times more long-chain omega 3 fatty acids than an adult.
The brain in breastfed infants contains 1 gram of the omega 3 fatty acid DHA, but only 0.6 gram is present in the brains of formula-fed infants.
The level of DHA in the red blood cells of infants explains 60% to 82% of variation in neurological development indices (more is better).
The omega 3 fatty acid EPA can play a role in reversing cognitive decline during aging.
Proteins of animal origin are more valuable overall than those of vegetable origin. The body does not store protein, hence the need for some protein at every meal.
Energy use in the frontal context of the brain increases 30% during a nightmare.
“Cerebral function, and thus the equilibrium and efficacy of intelligence depends on the quality (and quantity) of dietary energy.”
Source: J.M. Bourre, “Effects of Nutrients (in food) on the Structure and Function of the Nervous System: Update on Dietary Requirements for the Brain. Part 2: Macronutrients,” The Journal of Nutrition, Health, and Aging, Vol. 10, No. 5, November 5, 2006
Closing Statement by Chuck Benbrook in ‘The Economist.com’ Debate on the Motion:
“This house believes that biotechnology and sustainable agriculture are complementary, not contradictory.”
First, thanks to “The Economist” for the opportunity to participate and to all contributors for enhancing this debate by adding ongoing commentary.
In the 1980s scientists gained the ability to move genes from outside the plant kingdom into it. Changes in intellectual property law in the 1980s and 1990s allowed the patenting of GE crops, vastly increasing profit potential and triggering the essentially hostile takeover of the seed industry by the larger, more profitable pesticide industry.
Since the late 1990s, strategies to increase private sector profits through higher priced transgenic seeds have driven plant breeding priorities in corn, soybeans, and cotton.
Prior to the GE seed era, plant breeding was among the most important areas of basic and applied science serving the needs of farmers and society. It was controlled to a large degree by academic programs.
In its pre-DuPont era, the Pioneer seed company was respected by competitors and admired by farmers because the company delivered consistently on a corporate pledge to price new seed so that it delivers $3 in return for every $1 the farmer spends. That level of return is long gone and a rising percent of farmers planting GE seeds in the U.S. don’t even break even.
The pesticide-seed-biotech industry now drives plant breeding priorities and investments for major crops, and its “technology packages” exert increasing influence on farming system changes, except in the sustainable agriculture community.
Preserving the integrity of sustainable agriculture is vital for innovation and is, moreover, a sound investment in preventing problems at their biological roots. The cutting edge of sustainable agriculture is also where farmers, scientists, and businesses are promoting soil, plant, animal, and human health, as well as food quality and flavor, through systems-based “technology packages,” and earning a profit doing so with next to no help from government subsidies or preferential policy.
Feeding the World Arguments
Biotech advocates are eager to bet on western-style GE technology on behalf of the world’s poor, a bet I see as reckless and misguided.
Sure, large portions of African agriculture could someday look much like Iowa, using similar GE seeds, equipment, and fertilizers, but achieving this goal will require enormous investment in infrastructure and willingness to accept unimaginable social upheaval. What will Africa have to give up attracting the huge inflow of foreign capital needed for such a transformation?
Plus, it is clear that Iowa’s current energy-dependent agriculture model is not sustainable, so why push Africa to replicate what will have to change in one or two decades?
The Costs of GE Crop Technology
Developing, testing, and growing commercial quantities of seed for a novel GE crop variety takes about as long as conventional breeding, and it costs far more. Dr. Major Goodman, a maize breeder at North Carolina State University, has analyzed the process, steps, and cost of bringing GE corn varieties onto the market.
He concludes that the minimal cost of a novel GE maize hybrid is $60 million, compared to about $1 million for a conventionally bred hybrid, a 60-fold difference. Why?
Moving foreign DNA into a crop genome is highly imprecise, whether done with a gene gun or virus-based vector. There is no way to control where the foreign DNA lands, how many copies become active, and what turns the foreign genes on and off.
The exceptionally high cost of developing novel GE crop varieties is why the transgenic crop compartment of the biotech toolkit thus far has mostly been used on major row crops with billion dollar-plus seed markets.
Contrary to the assertions made by the CropLife Guest Commentator and others, GE crops have not significantly increased dependence on no-till in the U.S. No-till acreage grew rapidly in the U.S. from the late 1980s through the mid-1990s, before GE crops had gained much market share. The percent of corn acres planted using no-till rose from 8.5% in 1990 to 17% in 1996, but then only to 19% and 21% in 2002 and 2008.
The emergence of resistant weeds is driving herbicide use far higher on acres planted to herbicide-tolerant crops, and many farmers must now also apply older, higher-risk herbicides that increase the risk of birth defects.
The industry is addressing the problems posed by herbicide resistant weeds by creating new GE crops resistant to multiple herbicides, so even more herbicide “firepower” can be deployed. The logic supporting this strategy is profoundly flawed and surely does not “go together” with sustainable agriculture.
First, credible, independent research needs to confirm that any proposed transgenic technology works, is safe, and is not likely to lead to other problems.
Applications of biotechnology designed to better understand soil-plant-pest-animal interactions (i.e., probes and diagnostics), prevent animal diseases (i.e., vaccines), or enhance the cost-effectiveness of conventional plant and animal breeding (i.e. marker-assisted breeding) are compatible with sustainable agriculture if cost-effective and delivered without strings attached that abridge the farmer’s freedom to innovate.
The well-defined principles of agroecology as set forth in the recent international IAASTD report should shape and drive the evolution of agricultural systems in developing countries. If and as this comes to pass, the actual and perceived threat to sustainable agriculture posed by biotechnology will subside, making it less risky to explore where and how biotechnology can strengthen sustainable agriculture systems.
Grain Study Underway
Many people wonder but little is known about how organic farming and food manufacturing impact the nutritional quality, flavour, and safety of whole grains and grain-based products. The Organic Center is hoping to help shed fresh light on this important set of questions through a new program of research focusing on the key differences between organic versus conventionally grown grain.
We will explore what, if any, are the nutritional differences between conventional and organically farmed grains?
How do conventional vs. organic manufacturing processes impact quality?
What are the amounts of toxins in a finished product and associated risk, and their likely sources? How common and risky are pesticide residues in conventional grain products, and have major changes since 2001 in grain storage insecticide use really reduced risk?
How do grain genetics and production methods impact carbohydrate form and levels in grain-based products, and the increasing incident of wheat allergies and intolerance of grain-based products?
Several companies have agreed to support this ongoing program of research and we are actively seeking additional study partners and supporters. If you or your company might be interested in being part of the study, please contact Annie Brown at email@example.com.
Benbrook to Deliver “Roots of Health” Lecture at Johns Hopkins University
“The Roots of Health: The Importance of an Ecological Perspective on our Food System” will be the focus of a December 7th lecture by TOC Chief Scientist Chuck Benbrook at The Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future. The talk is the first annual Polly Walker Ecology Fund lecture on Tuesday, December 7th.
PLEASE NOTE -- The time has been changed to 4:00 pm to 5:30 pm at 12:00 pm in Sheldon Hall, W1214 in the Wolfe Street building of JHSPH (615 N. Wolfe St., with a second entrance on Monument St, between Wolfe and Washington Streets).
A reception will follow the lecture. Members of the public are invited to attend.
Core Truths on the Major Benefits of Organic Food and Farming
Core Truths is a ground-breaking compilation of the most current research on organic agriculture. This highly readable and graphically stunning 108-page coffee table book documents the verifiable health and environmental benefits of organic products.
For more information
The Organic Center Features Jerry Garcia Artwork
Do you or someone you know love The Grateful Dead? Do you enjoy beautiful original works of art? If so, select a giclee of Jerry Garcia original artwork and benefit The Organic Center. This unique fundraising initiative to benefit The Organic Center is made possible through the generosity of filmmaker Deborah Koons Garcia and features the series, "In the Garden," by the late Jerry Garcia. Individual prints are $250, or get the full series for $1,000. To order your Jerry Garcia art, click here.
"The Scoop," is an electronic newsletter published monthly by The Organic Center. For a free subscription, visit www.organic-center.org.
Backed by the world's leading scientists, physicians and scholars, The Organic Center is committed to two goals:
1) RESEARCH: providing free, peer-reviewed, credible science that explores the health and environmental benefits of organic agriculture.
2) EDUCATION: helping people and organizations access and better understand science that sheds light on the organic benefit.
To access free downloads of the latest in organic science go to: www.organic-center.org.
Our Outreach and Communication Program –
Informed consumers drive the organic marketplace. Help The Organic Center reach consumers with the latest science on the organic benefit by:
For companies, The Organic Center's Affinity Marketing Partnership Program provides resources and tools to help educate your customers about the personal benefits of organic food and farming.
- For more information about our affinity marketing program, email Jamie Kelly
Joan Boykin - Executive Director
Annie Brown - Development Director
Charles "Chuck" Benbrook, Ph.D. - Chief Scientist
TOC Board Chair: Mark Retzloff, Chairman of the Board, Aurora Organic Dairy
Treasurer: Timothy Escamilla, VP Procurement/Supply Chain, Ready Pac Produce
Secretary: Ryan Black, CEO, Sambazon
The Organic Center
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