Millions of dairy cows live in small pens on conventional factory farms with little or no access to grass and fresh air. Dairy farmers pump the cows with growth hormones that cause them to produce 10 times as much milk as Mother Nature intended. Farmers also use antibiotics to treat the mastitis caused by over-filling of their udders. Both the growth hormones and antibiotics pass through to the consumer in their milk.
The health and ethical issues alone in this scenario are enough to make discerning people shell out twice as much money to buy organic milk. And we haven't even begun to talk about the environmental impacts.
Factory dairy farming is not the most sustainable enterprise. A cow consumes more water and pesticide-laden feed each day than it can convert into milk. It expels that feed as 120 pounds of waste per day. The cow manure runs off when it rains and pollutes our groundwater supplies.
How do organic dairy farms counteract these problems? If organic cows produce less milk without growth hormones and need more land for grazing, then we need more cows on more land to make the same amount of milk as a conventional dairy farm. Isn't that a bigger problem?
No. The lack of artificial pesticides, hormones and antibiotics, combined with more sustainable, less energy-intensive farming practices balances out the equation. The unethical treatment of conventional grain-fed dairy cattle on factory farms and the healthier fats found in milk from grazing cows tip that balance in favor of organics.
However, all organics are not created equal. An analysis of 68 organic milk brands conducted by the Cornucopia Institute, a non-profit devoted to economic justice in the farming industry, found Horizon Organic and Aurora Organic Dairy (the source of most store brands of organic milk found in places like Wal-Mart and Target) to be very close to conventional dairies in many of their practices. These ratings were based on many factors, including the health of the animals and the actual time spent grazing. Both Aurora and Horizon have large factory farms in addition to some family farms. Thirty percent of America's organic supply comes from such "confinement dairies."
Horizon is definitely the model of organic gone wrong. It has sold its organic calves born on their farm and bought one-year-old conventionally raised cows that are ready to lactate to save the cost of raising their calves to maturity with organic feed and pasture. Horizon claims to be cleaning up its act, but that remains to be seen.
It is no surprise that cows receive better treatment on smaller family farms. Two of the best-ranked brands backed by a network of small organic farms are Organic Valley, which can be found at Rainbow Co-op and Fresh Market in Ridgeland, and Stonyfield Farm, whose yogurts can be found at almost any local grocery. Some of these small organic farms are coming up with innovative new dairy farming practices, such as methane digesters, which convert cow manure into electricity.
The most sustainable option for cow's milk would be local organic milk, but Mississippi imports most of its milk because the state's grazing options are not ideal. Our state's conventional dairy is Luvel, so if you're simply looking for milk that hasn't been shipped as far, and not considering hormones, grazing and the like, they are a good choice.
But the best choice for the environment and your health is to reduce your dairy consumption altogether and buy from the best organic brands when you do buy milk. Taste test alternatives such as soy milk, rice milk and even goat milk. Goat milk, which you can find at some Kroger stores and Rainbow Co-op, is easier for humans to digest than cow's milk and can be produced much more sustainably.
Rainbow Whole Foods
2807 Old Canton Road
1000 Highland Colony Parkway #1001