Dr. Greene’s Answer:
Lisa, thanks for your comments. I share your concern for animal well-being.
Beginning on October 21, 2002, in order to call an item of food ‘organic’ in the United States, producers and handlers must be certified by a USDA-accredited certifying agent to ensure that they comply with the National Organic Program (NOP) regulations.
The regulations define “pasture” as “land used for livestock grazing that is managed to provide feed value and maintain or improve soil, water, and vegetative sources.”
“The producer of an organic livestock operation must establish and maintain livestock living conditions for the animals under his or her care which accommodate the health and natural behavior of the livestock. The producer must provide access to the outdoors, shade, shelter, exercise areas, fresh air, and direct sunlight suitable to the species, its stage of production, the climate, and the environment. This requirement includes access to pasture for ruminant animals.”
The “suitable to the climate” part of these organic regulations is interpreted to mean that cows must be allowed to graze on pasture during the growing season, as I wrote.
While the NOP organic standards are by no means perfect, they are a huge step forward. I expect they will continue to improve over the years to come, and many of us are working toward that goal. I serve on the board of the Organic Center, providing information about the science behind the benefits of organic agriculture.
I notice that your address, Lisa, is in Canada. While Canada has had provisions for organic labeling since 1999, the Canadian Organic Products Regulations weren’t passed until December 21, 2006. Those regulations include the Organic Production Systems General Principles and Management Standards.
Here are a few quotes from Canada’s new regulations, which also call for grazing outdoors on pasture:
6. LIVESTOCK PRODUCTION
6.1.2 Livestock can make an important contribution to an organic farming system by
a. Improving and maintaining the fertility of the soil b. Managing the flora through grazing c. Enhancing biodiversity and facilitating complementary interactions on the farm
Livestock Living Conditions
6.8.1 The operator of an organic livestock operation shall establish and maintain animal living-conditions that accommodate the health and natural behaviour of all animals, including:
a. Access to the outdoors, shade, shelter, rotational pasture, exercise areas, fresh air and natural daylight suitable to the species, its stage of production, the climate and the environment
h. The outdoor stocking density of pasture and runs shall be low enough to prevent soil degradation by the livestock and overgrazing of vegetation.
6.8.2 Herbivores shall have access to pasture, weather permitting.
Most of these rules are to be implemented “suitable to the species,” but that last, (6.8.2) “Herbivores shall have access to pasture, weather permitting,” was added just to be doubly clear about the importance of pasture grazing for organic cows.
Thanks again for your concern. I hope this helps!
Best, Alan Greene, MD