by Marion Nestle

Currently browsing posts about: Organics

Aug 31 2021

Bad move: Danone drops organic dairy contracts in Northeast

Lorraine Lewandrowski, a correspondent who keeps me up to date on the dairy industry,  forwarded this bad-news article from the Vermont Digger: Danone, owner of Horizon Organic, to terminate contracts with Vermont farmers

The move represents the latest blow to an industry that has been struggling for years from rising production costs that have outpaced consumer prices. The number of dairy farms in Vermont has decreased by 37% in the past 10 years and by 69% in the past 24 years, according to a 2021 report from the Vermont Department of Financial Regulation.

Organic dairy farms decreased by 8% between 2010 and 2020. Vermont had a total of 181 organic dairy farms at the end of 2020, according to the Northeast Organic Farming Association of Vermont.

As the Real Organic Project explains it,

The Food and Agriculture Reporting Network’s FERN AgInsider had more information (behind a paywall)

The decision is just the latest squeeze on organic dairy producers, who face rising costs and pressures to consolidate…Danone North America, owner of Horizon Organic, said it had sent non-renewal notices to 89 producers in the Northeast. “We … did not make this decision lightly. Growing transportation and operational challenges in the dairy industry, particularly in the Northeast, led to this difficult decision…We will be supporting new partners that better align with our manufacturing footprint.”

This requires a blunt translation: organic milk in the Northeast costs more so Danone is cutting its losses.

Organic dairies in Midwestern and Western states, particularly Texas, have enormous herds and are able to produce milk at lower cost.

It’s cheaper for Danone to buy milk from them and ship it east than it is to buy from smaller local dairies.  This is Big Organic Dairy in action, and it’s not pretty.

As an official of the Northeast Organic Dairy Producers Alliance says:

Danone, the parent company of Horizon Organics, believes it has adequate supply in the Midwest and Western parts of the U.S. and can get the milk at a lower cost from larger operations.

Comment #1: the hypocrisy

Danone proudly proclaims its B Corp status.

Danone cites its B Corp ambition:

an expression of our long-time commitment to sustainable business and to Danone’s dual project of economic success and social progress.

Social progress, anyone?

Comment #2: weakness in the organic herd definition

At the moment, the definition is ambiguous and makes it easy for Big Dairy to accumulate large numbers of animals that may meet the definition of organic in letter, but hardly in spirit.

The Organic Trade Association (OTC) explains this issue

The USDA National Organic Program regulations include requirements for the transition of dairy animals (cows, goats, sheep) into organic milk production. Milk  sold or represented as organic must be from livestock that have been under continuous organic management for at least one year. This one-year transition period is allowed only when converting a conventional herd to organic. Once a distinct herd has been converted to organic production, all dairy animals must be under organic management from the last third of gestation.

But OTC says,

Due to a lack of specificity in the regulations, some USDA-accredited certifiers allow dairies to routinely bring non-organic animals into an organic operation, and transition them for one year, rather than raise their own replacement animals under organic management from the last third of gestation…This practice…is a violation of the organic standards and creates an economic disadvantage for organic farmers who raise their own organic replacement animals under organic management in accordance with the regulations.

The National Organic Coalition says:

the lack of consistent enforcement with regard to dairy pasture requirements as well as origin of livestock rules have contributed to the oversupply of organic milk in the market.  This has had a devastating effect on organic dairy prices to farmers, and left many organic farmers and those transitioning to organic with stranded investments because there are no buyers for their milk.

The USDA first proposed to tighten the rules in 2015:

The proposed rule would require that organic milk and milk products must be from animals that have been under continuous organic management from the last third of gestation onward, with a limited exception for newly certified organic dairy producers.

Big Organic has taken advantage of these loopholes.

Danone is putting profit over social values.  It does not deserve its B Corp status.

Presumably, USDA’s National Organic Standards Board is dealing with this issue.  It needs to act quickly to protect small dairy farmers.

Nothing less than the integrity of the organic program is at stake.

If you want to help, write or call your elected representatives and ask them to get USDA to speed up rulemaking on this issue.

Aug 2 2021

Unethical food marketing ad of the week: infant formula, organic no less

When my partner, Mal Nesheim, showed me this ad in Sunday’s New York Times, I had two immediate questions.

Question #1: Who paid for this?

The answer: Bobbie’s Infant Formula “inspired by a mom’s choice.”

When I went to the website, I learned that Bobbie’s infant formula is organic.  I am greatly in favor of organics, but just as organic junk food is still junk food, organic infant formula is still infant formula.

Breast feeding isn’t easy in today’s society and yes, some mothers (and fathers, of course) can’t do it.

But breast feeding is unquestionably best for babies.  Mothers who can breast feed need all the help and encouragement they can get.

That’s why this week has been designated World Breastfeeding Week.

Breastfeeding mothers do not need to be undermined by infant formula marketing.

If Nestlé (no relation) or the other leading infant formula manufacturers put an ad like this in the paper, the result would be worldwide outrage.  This leads to my second question.

Question #2: Doesn’t this ad appear to violate the World Health Organization’s International Code of Marketing of Breast-milk Substitutes?

OK, so the ad does not display infant formula products or even say that Bobbie’s is an infant formula company, let alone an organic one.  But it doesn’t take much to figure both out.

Recall the Nestlé boycott of  the 1980s, a worldwide boycott of the company because of the way it marketed infant formula to women in low-resource countries without clean water supplies.  The women were unable to use the products safely; contaminated or improperly diluted infant formula sickened and killed babies.

Opposition to Nestlé’s marketing strategies led to development of Marketing Code, now ratified by all WHO member nations (the United States and South Africa were the two holdouts, but both eventually agreed).

The boycott was so damaging to Nestlé’s sales and reputation that the company discusses it and defends its current marketing practices on its website.

If you have any concerns about our breast milk substitutes marketing practices, we encourage you to raise them with us so that we can continue to improve.

I’d say this Bobbie ad is morally and ethically wrong on four counts:

  • It undermines breast feeding
  • It directly undermines the intent of World Breastfeeding Week.
  • It violates the spirit if not the letter of the International Marketing Code.
  • It organic washes—it implies that because its products are organic, this company is above the Code.

This is the kind of marketing that gives organics a bad name.

Bobbie’s should not be doing this.

Time for another boycott?

Oct 14 2019

Industry-funded study of the week: Organics, alas

I am a great believer in the value of organic production methods, which avoid the most toxic pesticides and herbicides, are demonstrably better for soil, and produce fewer greenhouse gases.

But I wish the organic industry would try to find a less conflicted, more objective way of conducting studies on organic foods.

The study: Production-related contaminants, pesticides, antibiotics, and hormones in organic and conventionally produced milk samples sold in the USA.  JA Welsh, et al.  Public Health Nutrition.  Published online by Cambridge University Press: 26 June 2019. DOI:  https://doi.org/10.1017/S136898001900106X

Conclusions:  “Current-use antibiotics and pesticides were undetectable in organic but prevalent in conventionally produced milk samples, with multiple samples exceeding federal limits. Higher bGH and IGF-1 levels in conventional milk suggest the presence of synthetic growth hormone. Further research is needed to understand the impact of these differences, if any, on consumers.”

Funding: Financial support: Data collection was supported by the Organic Center…. The Organic Center had no role in the design, analysis of samples, or writing of this article.

Conflict of interest: J.A.W.’s investment portfolio includes equity in one of the companies whose milk products were randomly selected for use in this study. All other authors have no perceived or potential conflicts of interest to report.

Comment: Organic standards are about production values.  Antibiotics, toxic pesticides and herbicides, and genetic modification are not allowed in organic production and would not be expected to be detectable in organic milk.  The result reassures that the system is working properly (why wouldn’t it?).  But I wish it had been funded and conducted by investigators with no vested interest in its outcome.  I am aware of the argument that independent funding is not available for studies like this.  That’s a problem that the organic industry needs to solve.

Thanks to Stephanie Laverone for telling me about this study.

Jan 29 2019

My latest honor: “Crankster!”

I don’t usually pay attention to what the American Council for Science and Health (ACSH) says or does, mainly because it is a long-standing front group for the food and chemical industries, and it predictably supports the interests of those industries over public health (see US Right to Know’s analysis).

But then I read this from the Center on Media and Democracy: Corporate Front Group, American Council on Science and Health, Smears List of Its Enemies as “Deniers for Hire.”

Smeared by the site are scientists Tyrone Hayes, Stephanie Seneff, and Gilles-Éric Séralini; New York Times reporter Danny Hakim and columnist Mark Bittman; well-known food and science writer Michael Pollan; nutrition and food studies professor Marion Nestle; public interest groups like U.S. Right to Know, Greenpeace, Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), Sierra Club, the Environmental Working Group, and Union of Concerned Scientists; past and present CMD staff, and many other individuals ACSH does not like.

Clearly, I’m in good company.  But what, exactly, have I—a “Crankster,” apparently—done to deserve this honor?  It seems that I:

What can I say?  Read my work and decide for yourself if such concerns are justified.

Dec 11 2018

Eat organics, reduce cancer risk?

I rarely post anything about agricultural chemicals, mainly because it’s so hard to find people who are not exposed to them, most people are exposed only to small amounts, and the industry that makes them is so fierce about casting doubt on the quality of any research demonstrating harm.

But here is a French study comparing the risk of getting cancer among people who consume conventional diets with those who mainly consume organic foods.  Organics are relatively free of the most potentially harmful pesticides and herbicides.

The key points of this study:

Question  What is the association between an organic food–based diet (ie, a diet less likely to contain pesticide residues) and cancer risk?

Findings  In a population-based cohort study of 68 946 French adults, a significant reduction in the risk of cancer was observed among high consumers of organic food.

Meaning  A higher frequency of organic food consumption was associated with a reduced risk of cancer; if the findings are confirmed, research investigating the underlying factors involved with this association is needed to implement adapted and targeted public health measures for cancer prevention.

The authors’ offer this as the most likely explanation:

…the prohibition of synthetic pesticides in organic farming leads to a lower frequency or an absence of contamination in organic foods compared with conventional foods46,47 and results in significant reductions in pesticide levels in urine.48

They also note that the International Agency for Research on Cancer finds certain agricultural chemicals (most notably glyphosate / Roundup) to be probable or possible carcinogens.

As for opposition, the American Council on Science and Health (ACSH), an industry-sponsored group that can always be counted on to defend chemicals in the food supply, offers this detailed critique of the study.

Yes, of course we need more research on this question, and the sooner the better.

In the meantime, this study provides another good reason for choosing organic foods whenever you can.

References

46. Barański  M, Srednicka-Tober  D, Volakakis  N,  et al.  Higher antioxidant and lower cadmium concentrations and lower incidence of pesticide residues in organically grown crops: a systematic literature review and meta-analyses.  Br J Nutr. 2014;112(5):794-811. doi:10.1017/S0007114514001366

47. Smith-Spangler  C, Brandeau  ML, Olkin  I, Bravata  DM.  Are organic foods safer or healthier?  Ann Intern Med. 2013;158(4):297-300. doi:10.7326/0003-4819-158-4-201302190-00019

48. Science and Technology Options Assessment. Human health implications of organic food and organic agriculture. http://www.europarl.europa.eu/RegData/etudes/STUD/2016/581922/EPRS_STU%282016%29581922_EN.pdf. Accessed May 28, 2017.

Oct 31 2018

Organic foods might reduce cancer risk, says new study

I never cease to be amazed by how angry some people get about organic foods.

  • They complain about its higher prices (organics cost more to produce).
  • They complain about its implicit—no, explicit—critique of conventional farming methods (organics use fewer toxic pesticides, are kinder to soil, and are more sustainable).
  • They complain that organics exclude GMOs (this is bad for the GMO business).
  • They complain about research showing the benefits of organics.

This last complaint brings me to the study on organic food and cancer just published in JAMA Internal Medicine. 

This is an observational study of nearly 70,000 people who were asked to report their level of consumption of organic foods and were then monitored for cancer for 7 years.

The results: those who reported consuming the highest levels of organic foods had the lowest risk of developing cancer during that period.

For non-Hodgkin lymphoma, the cancer most associated with exposure to herbicides and pesticides used in conventional agriculture and GMO production, the observed reduction in risk was a whopping 86%.

An accompanying editorial lists the limitations of the study; the dietary intake data were self-reported, the questionnaire wasn’t validated, blood levels of pesticides and herbicides were not measured.

So yes, more research—perhaps much more research—is needed to confirm these observations before anything can be said about whether organics are really protective against cancer.

But in the meantime, there’s no harm in eating organic foods and these foods have demonstrable environmental benefits.

Choosing them means voting for food production systems that are better for the environment—and might be better for health as well.

This makes organics a good bet and worth the premium price if you can afford it.

Here’s what the New York Times says about this study.

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Sep 28 2018

Weekend reading: Elliot Coleman’s New Organic Grower

Elliot Coleman.  The New Organic Grower: A Master’s Manual of Tools and Techniques for the Home and Market Gardener.  30th Anniversary Edition.  Chelsea Green, 2018.

The first edition of this book came out in 1989 and it has been an essential tool for organic farmers and home gardeneres ever since.  Coleman’s goal is to make everyone want to farm organically.

“Small farms,” he begins, “are where agricultural advances are nurtured.”  And, he says, “I write only about those things I know.”

Fortunately, he knows a lot.  He knows about soil fertility, pests, weeds, crop rotations, agricultural craftsmanship, land, labor, marketing, and the economics of all of this.

His philosophy?  A pleasure to read.

Humans cannot imagine a world where they are not in charge.  As a biological farmer, I work in partnership with Nature, and I’m a very junior partner.  Given the limited amount of hard knowledge available, I often refer to my management style as “competent ignorance,” and I find that a very apt description.  But my level of trust in the design of the natural world and willingness to be guided by it is discomforting to those who think we should exercise total power over Nature…The reality of today’s world is that the practical success of the many farms managed on biological lines coexists with the striking lack of interest (antagonism actually) from scientific agriculture in exploring why these farms succeed.  The foundation upon which our Maine farm operates—a sense that the systems of the natural world offer elegantly designed patterns worth following—appears to be an indecipherable foreign language to most of agricultural science.

 

May 16 2018

Should organic eggs be labeled “healthy?” Their producers think so.

You have to have some sympathy for egg producers.  Egg consumption has been declining for years.

Egg producers blame the decline on cholesterol concerns; eggs are by far the largest dietary source of cholesterol.

Now Pete and Gerry’s Organic Eggs is petitioning the FDA to forget about cholesterol and update its definition of “healthy” so the company can advertise its eggs as “healthy.”

FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb said in a speech last month that the FDA would be updating the definition.

I, of course, think “healthy” is a slippery slope best avoided, and that Congress never should have allowed health claims on foods in the first place.,

But too late for that.

I don’t envy the FDA’s challenge here.  The petition is based on the dietary guidelines, but what the guidelines say about dietary cholesterol, and therefore eggs, is extremely confusing.

As I explained in a previous post, the guidelines no longer recommend a cap on dietary cholesterol of 300 mg/day (the equivalent of 1.5 eggs), but do say that people should eat as little cholesterol as possible.

Good luck on this one.