Bad news, anti-GMO-ers. It isn’t Big Ag and Monsanto that’s been ruining your dinner. It’s Big Organic Ag.
You don’t have to take my word for this. Consult The Washington Post.
The Post recently took time off from its busy schedule of trying to “get Trump,” to print two devastating reports by staff writer Peter Whoriskey on abuses in the organic food industry — one of which focuses on the Aurora Organic Dairy in Weld County.
The dairy’s operation stretches across “miles of pastures and feedlots” north of Greeley, according to the Post. The complex “is home to more than 15,000 cows, making it more than 100 times the size of a typical organic herd.”
For producing organic milk, “the critical issue is grazing,” The Post said. To be in accordance with the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), “organic dairies are required to allow the cows to graze daily throughout the growing season — that is, the cows are supposed to be grass-fed, not confined to barns and feedlots.”
In order for milk to receive and maintain USDA Organic certification, it has to come from cows who graze in organic-compliant pastures at least 120 days during the growing season.
“But during visits by The Washington Post to Aurora’s High Plains complex across eight days last year, signs of grazing were sparse, at best, The Post said. “Aurora said its animals were out on pasture day and night, but during most Post visits the number of cows seen on pasture number only in the hundreds. At no point was any more than 10 percent of the herd out. A high-resolution satellite photo taken in mid-July by Digital Globe, a space imagery vendor, shows a typical situation — only a few hundred on pasture.”
“In response,” The Post said, “Aurora spokeswoman Sonja Tuitele dismissed The Post’s visits as anomalies and ‘drive-bys.’”
The Post also had Aurora’s milk and the milk from seven other conventional and organic dairies blind-tested by Virginia Tech University scientists for components that are indicators of grass-feeding: conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), alpha-linolenic acid and linoleic acid. CLA and alpha-linolenic acid are higher in milk from grass-fed cows; linoleic acid is lower.
The milks The Post tested included samples from an organic dairy in northern Maryland that feeds its herd entirely from the pasture, unlike most large organic dairies that supplement pasture grazing and pasture-grown fodder with (organically grown) corn, soybeans and other grains. It also tested milk from Ohio-based Snowville Creamery, which also emphasizes pasture grazing, organic milks from Horizon and Organic Valley, and conventionally produced milk from 365 and Lucerne.
The northern Maryland and Snowville milks finished first and second respectively.
On two of the three measures, CLA and linoleic acid, Aurora’s milk “was pretty much the same as conventional milk,” The Post said. On the the third measure, alpha-linolenic acid, “Aurora ranked slightly better than the conventional milks but below the other ‘USDA Organic’ samples.”
Aurora isn’t the only organic dairy The Post suspects shorted its cows’ grazing days. The story said that on a visit to Texas and New Mexico in 2015, a Post reporter saw empty pastures similar to Aurora’s at seven large organic dairies.
Aurora insists its cows exceeded the 120-day minimum grazing requirement, despite The Post’s findings. Its claim would be more credible if 10 years ago a USDA investigation of it hadn’t found “willful violations” of organic rules, including that for three years Aurora “failed to provide a total feed ration that included pasture,” according to The Post, which also noted the USDA proposed revoking Aurora’s organic status at the time.
The case was settled by the Dairy entering into a consent agreement, which called on it to make “major changes.”
Producing milk that meets the USDA Organic standard costs about twice as much as producing conventional milk, both because of the grazing requirement and because when the cows aren’t grazing, any other feed they get must be organic — grown without synthetic pesticides, fertilizers or use of GMO varieties.
And since about 90 percent of the corn and soybeans produced in the U.S. comes from GMO varieties, it explains why a lot of organic corn and soybeans are imported.
Make that supposedly organic corn and soybeans.
Which brings us to The Post’s second investigative story. The paper found that 36 million pounds (18,000 tons) of ordinary Ukrainian soybeans, which had been fumigated with aluminum phosphide, a pesticide forbidden by organic regulations, had been re-labeled as “organic,” which increased their value by $4 million.
After being contacted by The Post, the story said, “the broker for the soybeans, Annapolis-based Global Natural, emailed a statement saying it may have been ‘provided with false certification documents’ regarding some grain shipments from Eastern Europe.” About 21 million pounds of the soybeans have already been distributed to customers.
The story didn’t say to whom.
The Post found two similar cases involving 92 million pounds (46,000 tons) of fraudulently labeled corn from Romania. All three shipments had passed through Turkey, “now one of the largest exporters of organic products to the United States.”
“The imported corn and soybean shipments examined by The Post were largely destined to become animal feed and enter the supply chain for some of the largest organic food industries,” The Post said. It added that “at least half” of organic corn and soybeans come from overseas.
So why don’t government inspectors catch this sort of fraud? Maybe it’s because most of the inspections are done by private parties who are hired and paid by the folks being inspected, not the USDA. (The Aurora Dairy inspectors had day jobs with the Colorado Department of Agriculture, but pulled down about $13,000 a year for inspecting the dairy. Most of the inspections were announced weeks in advance.)
What The Washington Post stories suggest is that in addition to the “USDA Organic” and “GMO-free” labels on organic milk, eggs, chicken and meats there ought to be one more: caveat emptor!
This opinion column does not necessarily reflect the views of Boulder Weekly.