On the animal rights revolution in organic farming.
Organic food shoppers have become accustomed to looking for green-and-white “USDA Organic” stickers on the products they buy, but they are not always familiar with the rules and standards that lie behind these labels. For example, many people believe that animals that produce organically-certified meat, eggs, and dairy products live very different lives than those on conventional farms. They would be surprised to learn that the rules dealing with animal welfare are ambiguous. This may be about to change significantly—the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) is currently considering a proposal that would transform the treatment of poultry and livestock on organic farms.
Many would be surprised to learn that, when it comes to organic certification, the rules dealing with animal welfare are ambiguous.
As published in the Federal Register, the proposed rules are wide-ranging. Among other things, they would increase the minimum size of dairy cow pens, require farmers to allow chickens to roam freely on soil and grass, and prohibit certain physical alterations, such as poultry debeaking and the removal of tails from cows and pigs.
The president of the ASPCA, an animal welfare organization, has asserted that the new rules would “make ‘organic’ mean something” by forcing farmers to “deliver on its humane promises.” But not everyone is cheering the proposal. Some farmers have argued that it would drive up the cost of organic foods, increase livestock disease exposure, and add to the risk of foodborne illnesses. There are also concerns that senators from agricultural states might vote to de-fund the new rules, blocking their implementation.
A brief tour of the history of the USDA’s National Organic Program (NOP) provides insight into this controversy and helps to explain why animal welfare issues have come to a head now. The federal government entered the business of regulating the organic trade in 1990 with the Organic Foods Production Act (OFPA). This law authorized the creation of the NOP within the Department of Agriculture and established a stakeholder-comprised National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) to give advice on the program’s design and implementation.
From the beginning, OFPA’s Congressional sponsors expected the NOP to accomplish two (somewhat contradictory) goals. First, the program was to support the expansion of the organic market by eliminating inefficiencies and uncertainties that had bedeviled organic producers and retailers during the 1980s. Second, it was to preserve the integrity of organic as an agricultural system guided by distinctive ethical principles.
One way that USDA staff and the NOSB tackled the contradiction was by drawing sharp boundaries around the inputs that could be used in organic farming. According to the “origin of materials” framework, which appeared in both the legislation and the subsequent rules, most synthetically-produced fertilizers, pesticides, and other inputs would be disallowed in organic farming, while most naturally-derived ones would be permitted.
In the context of crop production, the origin of materials rule is fairly clear-cut—but organic livestock and poultry production have never fit easily into this framework. Though some elements of the framework were adapted to animal operations—for example, animals must eat organic grain or pasture and must not be treated with antibiotics—livestock and poultry production raises additional questions that this framework is not equipped to deal with. Is it acceptable for organic farms to raise animals in confinement? What obligations should organic farmers have to their animals’ emotional and physical welfare? Must animals on organic farms be permitted to engage in “natural” behaviors, and who gets to decide what “natural” behaviors are?
These are complex questions because they have implications for the size of the livestock operations in the organic sector. Simply put, it is extremely difficult to scale up animal production without using techniques, such as confined feeding, that mirror those employed by conventional (i.e. non-organic) farms. Some would argue that farms that use these techniques have no right to call themselves organic, but recall that an underlying goal of federal regulation was to support market expansion, in part, as the scholar Julie Guthman has explained, by allowing businesses of all sizes to participate in the organic sector, so long as they were willing to follow the rules.
What obligations should organic farmers have to their animals’ emotional and physical welfare?
When the NOP rules first went into effect, they dealt with this dilemma by including vaguely worded animal welfare requirements, including that animals have access to pasture and outdoor areas. Predictably, larger operations interpreted these requirements in the loosest possible terms, placing cows on pasture only at certain times or attaching small, covered, concrete-floored “porches” for outdoor access to chicken sheds. Just as predictably, animal welfare advocates and spokespeople for small-scale farms pushed back, demanding more precise and stringent rules.
Today’s proposed rules testify to the success of the latter groups’ strategies, which involve both low-profile advocacy work and confrontational, attention-grabbing tactics. Low-profile advocates have worked with members of the NOSB to draft stronger requirements for animal welfare—indeed, the current proposal is based on NOSB recommendations issued in 2011—although they have also been frustrated at times by the continued attention placed on inputs and market expansion in the NOP regulatory framework.
Those who have chosen confrontation have sought to mobilize public pressure for stricter rules through graphic demonstrations of the gap between permitted organic livestock practices and (what they see as) organic ideals. For example, one advocacy group chartered a plane to fly over and photograph some of the largest organic dairy and egg operations. The photos, which were published online by The Washington Post, suggested that counter to popular perceptions, cows and chickens on organic farms often live in cramped quarters with limited access to the outdoors.
Pressure for stronger rules does not only come from advocacy groups, but also from new ways that large conventional foods businesses are managing their supply chains. Several companies, including Wal-Mart, McDonalds, Perdue, and the dairy giant Dannon, have announced new animal welfare requirements that will be added to contracts with their suppliers. As concerns about farm animal treatment gain increasing public attention, these companies are betting that they will capture a competitive advantage by convincing consumers that the products they sell are more ethical, in animal welfare terms, than those of their competitors.
For organic advocates, these changes are a double-edged sword. On one hand, many believe that these actions by large food businesses have the potential to shift conventional agricultural practices in a positive direction. On the other hand, the marketing efforts of the big players threaten to eclipse organic producers. If a consumer who is concerned about farm animal treatment believes that the chickens who produce conventional eggs for Wal-Mart are treated as well as (or even better than) organically-raised chickens, why would she buy pricier organic eggs?
The current USDA proposal is the latest installment in the ongoing balancing act demanded by federal policy. The Organic Foods Production Act forces regulators and advisors into the contradictory position of both striving for efficiency and protecting the integrity of organic agriculture as a distinctive system. Given these competing objectives, it is not surprising that the draft rules leave many people dissatisfied. In addition to the critiques from large-scale farmers mentioned above, one of the groups that has been most vocal about animal welfare concerns is also opposing the rules, saying that they do not go far enough.
But the proposal also reflects an effort to keep the organic label relevant for consumers in a changing marketplace. The contradiction here runs deeper than the one in federal policy. To the extent that organic farming is a movement that aims to transform food production on a national (and global) scale, the adoption of animal welfare requirements by leading food companies must be seen as a victory. Yet, it is a victory that may threaten the consumer demand that is the ultimate source of organic agriculture’s influence. Organic farmers must stay ahead of the curve in order for their label to remain meaningful, even though the vanguard is an unsettling and perilous place to be.