The Impact of Organic Dairy on Reducing Synthetic Chemical Use: A Webinar Overview

Cows often get a bad reputation for contributing to climate change. However, Organic Dairy is on a mission to change how cows interact with their surrounding environment while producing milk that is healthy and eco-friendly.

Recently, the Organic Center hosted a webinar with speaker Jessica Shade Ph.D. titled Small Changes, Big Outcomes: The Impact of Organic Dairy on Reducing Synthetic Chemical Use Confirmation. The Organic Center is an American-based nonprofit whose goal is to deliver accurate and scientific-based research about organic food and agriculture. This webinar complements the report they released last year in 2019. In case you missed the webinar or you’d like a recap of the discussion and suggestions for extra reading material, we have provided a summary of the webinar below.

What Are Some of the Key Take-Aways From the Webinar

Practices of America Organic Dairy 

What is organic dairy? The webinar first lays out the standard practices  that you can expect to find in an American organic dairy farm. These practices, outlined in the US National Organic Program, include:

  • Livestock are grazed at least 120 days out of the year
  • Livestock are fed a completely organic diet
  • Livestock must have year-round access to outdoor spaces, this includes access to shade, shelter, exercise areas, fresh air, clean water and direct sunlight. Continual indoor confinement is prohibited. 
  • While preventative measures are used to keep cows healthy, in the case of an animal becoming sick, farmers may use restricted medicine. No antibiotics or synthetic chemicals may be used unless the cow is withdrawn from the milking cycle for 14 days or double the label requirement for the cow to be considered organic again. 

Organic dairy farmers will also try to improve the surrounding environment through the use of composting and using manure on the farm and using cover crops to improve the surrounding environment. These practices are similar to the ones outlined in the Canadian Organic Standards.

Chemical in the Dairy Industry 

The chemicals used throughout the conventional milk production process, including the agrochemicals used in making cattle feed have major environmental repercussions such as water pollution, biodiversity loss and soil. The chemicals used throughout the conventional milk production process, including the agrochemicals used in making cattle feed have major environmental repercussions such as water pollution, loss of biodiversity, and soil degradation. The chemicals that these cows have in their bodies also affect the quality of their milk. A study conducted by TOC and Emory University found that conventional dairy milk from the US contained antibiotics, growth hormones and pesticide residues. These residues can have harmful effects on human populations, including causing an increased risk of antibiotic resistance, as well as breast, colorectal and prostate cancers. These residues include banned antibiotics and one case of antibiotic levels that exceeded FDA limits.

Organic milk, in contrast, had significantly lower levels of growth hormones and was found to have no traces of pesticides or antibiotics. Luckily, in Canada growth hormones are prohibited in conventional dairy and the use of antibiotics is limited to sick cows that are removed from milking after being treated. However, US produced dairy products still find their way into Canadian markets through imports such as processed foods (e.g. frozen pizzas). For those concerned about antibiotic-resistant bacteria, organic milk may still be the better option. Canadian Organic Dairy requires that cows treated with antibiotics are taken out of the milk production cycle for longer, a total of 30 days. In addition, organic farms heavily restrict the use of antibiotics and are encouraged to treat sick cows with alternative methods.

Cows and Climate Change 

The webinar panelists claim that organic milk has the ability to help improve the environment through the lack of agrochemicals, which are carbon-intensive to produce. Synthetic fertilizers, for example, are double polluters, as their production generates greenhouse gas emissions and their application to fields results in runoff and water pollution. In supporting organic dairy, consumers support a system that takes chemicals out of the equation.

The panelists also claim that organic dairy improves the environment through controlled rotational grazing, and that cattle can help sequester carbon.

Organic Dairy Calculator 

The webinar also included a practical application for milk consumers who wish to know the environmental impacts of organic dairy in the United States. The Organic Center’s Organic Milk Calculator offers users the ability to calculate how many chemicals would be avoided in different scenarios such as what if the total supply of yogurt, milk or cheese produced in the US was exclusively organic. Businesses can put in the volume of conventional milk they purchase now, and it will show the reductions in synthetic inputs and drug use that they would have if they switched to purchasing organic milk.

View the calculator now. 

American Organic Dairy vs. Ontarian Organic Dairy 

This webinar specifically centred on organic dairy standards in the US National Organic Program which vary slightly from the regulations observed in Canada. Canada requires that to be considered organic and sold as such, a dairy farm must adhere to the following regulations

  • Managed crops and pastureland can’t have used synthetic fertilizer, pesticides, herbicides, fungicides or insecticides or genetically modified organisms for three consecutive years
  • The farmer must be able to provide a comprehensive history of any organic certified land, along with accurate records for production management such as storage rentals, machine usage etc. 
  • Cows and replacement heifers must have a 100% organic diet with only certain exceptions such as the use of minerals or essential ingredients that cannot be sourced accurately
  • Livestock cannot be treated with antibiotics or synthetic hormones with some exceptions. Under veterinary supervision, a cow may be given antibiotics twice a year with the cow being withdrawn from rotation. The administration of electrolytes, vaccines and vitamins is also allowed. 
  • Livestock must have access to the outdoors all year round and access to an organic certified grazing area throughout the growing season. These pastures must have at least 30% of total dry matter intake.

The demand for organic products is booming, far outpacing the current supply. Organic dairy is an excellent example of how organic agriculture can help improve the way we produce our food. The Organic Council of Ontario has also had a voice in this conversation comparing organic and conventional milk products, if you’d like to read our in-depth comparison you can check out our article rebuffing the Toronto Star’s “Milked” Article:

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