New Aerial Photos Suggest Big Organic Farmers May Be Lying to Us

Consumers of organic eggs and milk like knowing that the cows and chickens on organic farms are treated decently. Many people count on the fact that these animals are required to get a certain amount of time in the great outdoors. They’re not supposed to be kept indoors round the clock in classic factory farm fashion.

Unfortunately, one watchdog group called the Cornucopia Institute says the biggest organic farms aren’t bothering to follow the rules. They’re getting too big to be able to even try. In fact, they’re turning into… factory farms.

The Wisconsin-based group, which researches and investigates agricultural and food issues, announced in December 2014:

[C]onsumers, who rightly assume that the animals producing their food are being treated respectfully, and consequently resulting in higher quality food, are being taken advantage of in the marketplace.

Why is this so? Take a gander at the aerial photographs the Cornucopia Institute took earlier in 2014 of 14 major organic diary and chicken farms. See large numbers of animals enjoying the sun and air? No? That’s a problem. Potentially, that’s a rather important violation of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) organic certification.

Grazing on a small organic farm.  Photo credit: Thinkstock

Grazing on a small organic farm. Photo credit: Thinkstock

What Makes an “Organic” Chicken or Dairy Cow?

“The federal organic regulations make it very clear that all organic livestock must have access to the outdoors and that ruminants, like dairy cows, must have access to pasture,” said Mark A. Kastel, Senior Farm Policy Analyst and co-founder of the Cornucopia Institute, in a press release.

Specifically, to be legitimately certified as organic, farms must adhere to these rules:

Dairy Cows:

  • Must be able to graze outside at least 120 days each year
  • Thirty percent of dairy cows’ dry feed must come from pasturing (grazing outside)
  • Dairy farmers must have a pasture management plan and manage pasture as a crop to meet the feed requirements for the grazing animals and to protect soil and water quality

Chickens:

  • Must have year-round access to the outdoors, shade, shelter, exercise areas, fresh air, clean drinking water and direct sunlight
  • Must get appropriate clean, dry bedding
  • Must have shelter designed to provide:
    • Natural maintenance, comfort behaviors and opportunity to exercise;
    • Temperature levels, ventilation and air circulation; and
    • Less chance of injury to the birds

Organic livestock must be “raised in a way that accommodates their health and natural behavior,” according to the USDA. Outside the grazing season, according to the rules, dairy cows must have free access to the outdoors year-round except under specified conditions, such as inclement weather.

At its heart, the USDA’s organic label as it applies to farmed animals makes mandatory “access to pasture,” which includes “access to the outside, direct sunlight, fresh air and freedom of movement.” The Cornucopia Institute insists that many of the biggest organic dairy and egg farms aren’t complying, to the economic detriment of smaller family farmers who do.

Photos May Indicate Little to No Outdoor Access

Photographs taken from above 14 major organic diary and egg farms convinced the Cornucopia Institute that the animals were not outside much, if at all. Here, for example, is a photo the Cornucopia Institute says was taken above Horizon Dairy in Kennedyville, Md.:

Photo credit: The Cornucopia Institute

Photo credit: The Cornucopia Institute

Of this photo, the group notes:

The pasture (or hay ground) is in extremely good condition in terms of growth at the end of the season with little signs of cow lanes or uneven grazing leading one to question how much time these hundreds of cows have actually spent out in this fairly limited acreage. Some of the fields show obvious signs of mechanical harvesting.

Click here to see a high resolution version of the above photo.

“If you showed these pictures to people buying milk and eggs at Whole Foods, they’d be appalled,” Kastel told the Washington Post. “For the past 10 years, we have observed systemic violations of the law at numerous industrial-scale livestock facilities representing themselves as ‘organic.’”

Kastel says these facilities are getting too big to faithfully comply with the rules of organic certification.

“The vast majority of these massive, industrial-scale facilities, some managing 10,000 to 20,000 head of cattle, and upwards of one million laying hens, had 100 percent of their animals confined in giant buildings or feedlots,” Kastel said.

“Shoppers, who passionately support the ideals and values represented by the organic label, understandably feel betrayed when they see photos of these massive CAFOs (concentrated animal feeding operations) masquerading as organic,” he added.

Photo credit: Thinkstock

Photo credit: Thinkstock

Some of the farms have responded to these allegations by noting that these photos are but a single snapshot in time, not proof of a course of conduct. This is true, of course. That doesn’t necessarily mean the Cornucopia Institute is wrong, though.

Demand for organic eggs and milk is exploding. Farms are doing everything they can to keep up. Are they going too far? Are they cutting corners?

“At some point the magnitude of these operations becomes preposterous — because their practical ability to meet minimum organic and humane livestock standards becomes impossible,” Kastel noted.

Even when certification problems come to light, some accuse the USDA of dragging its feet by taking three years or more to deal with alleged improprieties.

Based on its investigation, the Cornucopia Institute has filed complaints against all 14 large farms with the USDA. This will be a matter worth watching for anyone who cares about the welfare of farmed animals as well as the organic label and what it stands for.

Photo credit (main image): Thinkstock

184 comments

Jerome S
Jerome S1 years ago

thanks

SEND
Jerome S
Jerome S1 years ago

thanks

SEND
Jim V
Jim Ven1 years ago

thanks for sharing.

SEND
Jim V
Jim Ven1 years ago

thanks for sharing.

SEND
Jim Ven
Jim Ven2 years ago

thanks for the article.

SEND
P M.
Bul M3 years ago

When will animals be treated as nature intended? When will the big farming industry STOP abusing animals that they will eventually murder?

SEND
Jim Ven
Jim Ven3 years ago

thanks for the article.

SEND
Mark Donners
Mark Donner4 years ago

To be in the top management of most corporations nowadays you have to be a psychotic on the level of a genocidal serial killer.

SEND
Paulinha Russell
Paulinha Russell4 years ago

Thanks

SEND
Celine Robichaud
Past Member 4 years ago

Thanks for sharing

SEND