How Good is Organic Milk

by Deity on August 22, 2006

By the Union of Concerned Scientists
August 2006

Milk is the most popular organic product on the market, commanding up to twice the price of regular milk. Yet the idyllic vision many people have of organic dairy farms—and organic milk’s environmental benefits—is often not the reality.

An increasing amount of milk that is certified organic under current USDA standards is produced by cows that spend most of their lives in crowded feedlots. These “factory” farms generate tons of manure that pollute the air and water, posing risks to the environment, farm workers, and nearby residents. What’s worse, some of the country’s largest organic milk producers are fighting to weaken USDA standards.

So what’s a milk lover to do? Here are several strategies for ensuring your organic milk is actually better for cows, farmers, and the environment:

  • Buy local. Smaller, family-run farms often employ organic practices or are certified organic. Farmer’s markets are a good place to find such farmers, even if they are not selling milk at the market. To be sure they are following best practices, ask whether they administer growth hormones to their cows, and whether they use pesticides on their pastures.
  • Check the scorecard. Find out how 68 different organic dairy brands and products stacked up in a survey conducted by the nonprofit Cornucopia Institute, which rated brands based on the parent company’s production and purchasing practices .

What about grass-fed? A growing number of dairy farmers are raising their cattle mainly on pasture, rather than the grain-based diet typical of feedlots. A recent Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) report shows that pasture grazing is not only less damaging to the environment than feedlot operations, but also produces milk that contains higher levels of fats that may confer health benefits to humans. There are currently no labeling standards for grass-fed dairy products, so the best way to find them is by speaking with local farmers or searching various online directories.

It is important to note, however, that grass-fed cattle do not necessarily meet organic standards (or vice versa). UCS and other organizations are advocating that farms that are now organic also become pasture-based.

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