USDA Tightens Organic Grazing Regulations

The recent announcement about USDA’s final regulation on access to pasture for organic livestock is a clear victory for the organic movement. The present language of the National Organic Program (NOP)  merely stipulates that grazing livestock must have access to pasture. As the organic market share has grown, the differing interpretations of this language have created fissures in the community. With the expansion of industrial organic products, critics have questioned what organic signifies when some providers rely primarily on feedlots. As explained by the USDA, “the final rule provides certainty to consumers that organic livestock production is a pasture-based system in which animals are actively grazing pasture during the grazing season.“

The process to amend the current NOP language began nearly five years ago with a recommendation from the National Organic Standards Board that suggested, “ruminants obtain a minimum 30 percent dry matter intake for at least 120 days.” Published first in 2008, the proposal elicited an astonishing 26,000 comments. The voices of family farmers and animals rights, environmental, and nutrition activists mixed with local government officials, consumer groups, trade organizations, and industry representatives. “USDA closes organic loophole,” cheered nutrition expert Marion Nestle.

The final regulation specifies the following:

  • “Animals must graze pasture during the grazing season, which must be at least 120 days per year;
  • Animals must obtain a minimum of 30 percent dry matter intake from grazing pasture during the grazing season;
  • Producers 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; and,
  • Livestock are exempt from the 30 percent dry matter intake requirements during the finish feeding period, not to exceed 120 days. Livestock must have access to pasture during the finishing phase.”

In an effort to ensure the new regulations reflect both the spirit of the organic movement and the realities of contemporary agriculture, USDA is inviting additional comments on the language on finishing feed. Grain feed is common practice on “farms” where animals are raised for meat and is used to improve the grade.

“There’s this feeling that it will level the playing field between the larger farms in the West and the smaller farms throughout the nation,” said VP for Stonyfield Farm, Nancy Hirshberg in an interview with the New York Times. Stonyfield approves of the USDA’s revision, but many of its competitors disagreed. The review process has been of particular interest to the organic dairy industry, where consumer confidence has faltered as the gap in animal husbandry practice widened, specifically in regard to access to pasture.

Just months ago, Promiseland Livestock, one of the titans in the organic cattle market, was suspended from organic commerce.  According to the industry watchdog Cornucopia, Promiseland was “accused of multiple improprieties in formal legal complaints, including not feeding organic grain to cattle, selling fraudulent organic feed and ‘laundering’ conventional cattle as organic.” The implications for organic dairy were tremendous – Promiseland supplied dairy cattle to Dean Foods, sold under the Horizon Organic label, Natural Prairie Dairy and Aurora. Both Natural Prairie Dairy and Aurora source the milk for major national brands including Costco, Safeway, Target, and Walmart.

The controversy around access to pasture has led to the expected divisions, pitting corporate giants against smaller dairies but it has also, in some cases, made the two unlikely bedfellows. As reported by Grist, the effort to craft standards while navigating agroecology poses a profound policy challenge. The Strauss Family Creamery for example, the first Western dairy to be certified organic, opposed the terms of the final regulation. The dairy operates under the strict terms for local land and water use stipulated by the Marin Agricultural Land Trust and the California Regional Water Quality Control Board and Strauss was concerned the revised policy would offer insufficient flexibility. Critics condemned the organic pioneer alongside  Aurora Dairy, a long-term offender of organic standards.

While reactions to the final regulation continue to pour in, a sizable majority applauds the language put forth by Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack. In one of those rare moments in which a public servant reflects public sentiment, Deputy Administrator of the National Organic Program, Miles V. McEvoy, touted the final regulation, proclaiming, “This is the biggest deal in the organic community for many years.”

Has greenwashing dissuaded you from purchasing organic? Will the new standards effect your shopping cart?

Tori conducts research and writes on environmental issues, with a special focus on food justice. Her professional experience in the civic sector and academic background in social and economic development ground her work and belief in a sustainable food system as an achievable human right. Tori is based in Bogota, Colombia where she is pursuing a bilingual, international career in environmental policy.