That happy cow staring back at you from the milk carton must be doing well. After all, the label says, she wasn’t treated with rBGH (recombinant bovine growth hormone), rBST (recombinant bovine somatotropin), or antibiotics. So why opt for that gallon of organic milk sitting right next to her?
Sales of antibiotic- and hormone-free milk have jumped over the past few years, and survey after survey shows that people want milk free of those questionable additives out of concern for what they might be doing to their health. But by focusing on one or two aspects of dairy production, we’re missing the ways in which full-fledged organic dairies benefit the planet, says Charles Benbrook, PhD, chief scientist at The Organic Center, a nonprofit organic agriculture research organization, and developer of a calculator that quantifies the benefits of organic dairy production.
Benbrook analyzed all of the major inputs used on conventional dairy farms that aren’t allowed in organic operations: synthetic pesticides, nitrogen-based fertilizers, and animal drugs, such as antibiotics and hormones. He found that all the organic farms across the U.S., housing some 120,000 dairy cattle, were given 1.7 million fewer drug treatments than their nonorganic counterparts, which are not only shot full of growth hormones but also with hormones given to cattle to aid in reproduction. "For all the attention that’s been directed to rBGH, more attention is warranted to reproductive hormones," says Benbrook. "Far more of them are used and they’re used during lactation, while the cows are milking." Not much is known, he says, about the levels of these reproductive aids in a finished product, or what those aids may be doing to people.
Drug use aside, organic dairy cattle also kept 40 million pounds of fertilizer and 758,000 pounds of pesticides off fields and out of waterways.
When it comes to milk, “organic” means more than just a bowl of cereal free of antibiotics and growth hormones. "Any of those labels—natural, grass-fed, no antibiotics, no hormones—really do not encompass the system changes required on organic farms," says Benbrook. "In general, dairies that just take a single input out of the system but don’t change other aspects of their farming practices don’t have the beneficial impacts on animal health or farmland that’s possible on organic farms."
When you’re shopping for dairy products, here are a few things to keep in mind:
• Don’t be duped. "USDA Organic" is the only independently administered certification that will ensure your milk is free of added growth and reproductive hormones. “Antibiotic-free” and “Hormone-free” aren’t verified and can be misleading.
• Go local. Just like organic vegetable farms, organic dairies (or noncertified dairies that raise cattle organically) may be closer than you realize, allowing you to purchase products created locally. Find one at www.localharvest.org. Also check local farmer’s markets for organic milk direct from small, local farms.
• Shop around. If you drink milk primarily for its nutritional value and want to save a little coin, check out other organic dairy products that may cost less. For example, plain organic yogurt has the same protein as milk and may be cheaper.