As a consumer, I always assumed organic farming would be better in every way. Now that we are farmers, I’ve learned so much more. I've come to realize the ideal answer is more nuanced and worth digging into.
The conventional farmer would argue that organic production, which doesn't allows ANY antibiotic or other medication, isn't good for the animals or the consumer. After all, if your pet or child got pink eye, would you really let the disease take its course? Or would you give them the medication needed to heal properly?
We have heard too many stories of certified organic meat coming from very sick animals who should have been treated, yet those organic farmers routinely withhold treatment because they'd lose their certification.
This happens, in part, because a lot of organic meat is raised in factory style farms just like conventional meat. Often, the only difference between conventional factory farmed eggs and organic factory farmed eggs is that the organic hens get to eat organic grains without access to antibiotics or other medication... even if needed.
This is where the conventional farmers have a point. Organic isn't necessarily better in every way. Sad, but true.
While it is true that there are some regulations for conventional grains, they are woefully inadequate. Also, if the grain used to feed the animals is from other parts of the world, there is practically zero oversight. In some countries they even apply mercury to the stored grains to prevent infestation!
To prevent pests from destroying the crop, conventional grains are usually fumigated with pesticides - most often the highly toxic aluminum phosphide. There are a wide range of organic and non-toxic alternatives, but fumigation is considered one of the most effective . OSHA warns us how dangerous these chemicals are for the workers.
Rodent studies show that eating grains with residual levels of this fumigant isn't directly observable. However, at higher exposure there were significant health impacts, including reproductive issues. In humans, acute exposure causes a range concerning symptoms.
We think it is a bad idea to eat conventional wheat (or really any conventional grain) for this reason alone. Would the average consumer buy conventional bread if they knew that the food industry was covering the wheat with toxic chemicals AFTER harvest?
Organic grains specifically must be managed organically and thus are never sprayed with with these chemicals.
So that's great -- just buy organic meat and you'll be sure it was fed organic grains. Right? After all, organic also has the perk of being non-GMO too!
The problem with factory and even most local organic meats is that they are fed pretty much the same type of food as conventional meats, but using organic grains. By that I mean they are fed organic corn and organic soy plus a few bits of something else.
From an environmental perspective, one could argue that organic corn and soy are worse for our waterways and local ecosystem than a well-managed GMO conventional field. This is because organic corn/soy require lots of tillage and disruption of the topsoil. This causes erosion, probably worse than most conventional fields. There are pros and cons to each system for sure.
Likewise, one could argue that conventional, but 'non-GMO' are probably even worse! Be wary of the 'non-GMO' label unless you know the grains (or sugar) are also raised organically.
Having the organic system enforce zero tolerance to medication makes us feel nice. It sure makes labeling easier: "No antibiotics... ever". Yet what happens to the animals who really needed some help through no fault of their own? There is really no good outcome that can happen there.
The conventional system often feels like it has 100% tolerance to any questionable practice. That fake pastoral image on the label is never going to whitewash the reality of a conventional CAFO.
As flawed as the organic system is, we just won't feed food to our family conventional food. Many 'local' 'happy' farms are still using conventional practices.
In fact, that is what made us start our own farm in the first place. We just couldn't find meat we were 100% comfortable eating (organic or otherwise).
As we've learned more how conventional agriculture works, we've realized it just isn't for us.
The best system is one that falls outside of the existing regulations.
At TC Farm, we raise our animals in ways that keep them healthy, without the need for routine medications or other shortcuts. However, even the healthiest of us still get sick sometimes. Most of the time when we are sick, our bodies recover just fine. However, there are times when modern medicine is really important.
Forgoing modern medicine on principal doesn't seem like the best thing for us or our animals. I am not willing to sell meat from a sick animal just to make a few extra bucks; nor am I willing to withhold treatment from the tiny percentage of our well cared for animals who need it.
We only use grains that are raised 100% organically. Some are certified, others are from fields that are being transitioned to certified status. We know they are all non-GMO and never have those toxic fumigants applied.
However, to reduce the environmental and health damage caused by organic corn and soy, we raise all of our pork without soy and very little (or often no) corn. Our beef is all 100% grass fed, so there are never grains used there. Some of our chickens are soy-free, but others have organic, non-GMO soy in them. We talk a bit about why here.
We have learned a lot growing TC Farm into the group it is. We've partnered with many amazing families who just want the opportunity to raise animals the best way possible and we are learning more every day. The current food system serving our country makes that really difficult, but I'll save that for another article.
The relevant thing we've found talking with many of the local 'happy' animal farmers, is that they often avoid any sort of organic certification. They are happy to get their 'local' grains from their neighbor who is a 'really good' farmer they trust.
When we work to partner with a new family, we press and find out all the details on where and how their animals are raised. Often, the farmer doesn't actually know enough about the grains they use or other important attributes of their production. It turns out that just because the neighbor farmer hates GMO, doesn't mean they are avoiding using lots of toxic chemicals on their grains... in fact, usually more chemicals are applied if it is a non-GMO, but otherwise conventional field.
As consumers, we were so frustrated with the lack of transparency. People are trying to do great work but life just gets in the way.
Without a certification process, nobody is actually checking up on the details. As consumers, we were uncomfortable with that. Yet, certifying organic causes some of the problems described above (and more). It is a hard balance to be sure.
I helped to put together this guide for people who decide to buy from other farms. There are a few simple questions you can ask YOUR farmer to help see if they are paying attention to the things we feel are important.
The data certainly seems to show feeding antibiotics to healthy animals is a really bad idea that can lead to superbugs. Learn more about it in this article.
I hope some of this was new and informative for you. I'd love to hear what kind of questions or comments you have! Please share with your friends so they can be sure to buy organic grain products in the store and look for well raised meats!
(Photo of grain in article, "grain001" by unbekannt270 is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International)
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