Why Can’t We All (Conventional and Organic Agriculture) Just Get Along?

Agriculture is the largest industry in the United States.  It is run by 2% of the population.  Currently there is a general consensus that many people are removed from the production of their food.  But there is a movement of people that are seeking answers on where their food comes from and how it is produced.  These are people that are looking to become educated consumers and I admire them for it.  Unfortunately, as most of us know, there is a lot of misinformation out there.  People hear buzzwords like organic, natural, humanely raised and associate them with good.  When they hear conventional or big ag they tend to associate them with negative thoughts.  I just want to say that we should all realize and remember that there is no silver bullet when it comes to feeding consumers.  People’s palates are as wide ranging as their political views.

We raise beef cattle and broilers.  We mostly raise our cattle for breeding stock but we do feed out a few steers or heifers each year to have processed into meat for our family to eat.  I know that our animals are treated humanely by my husband, his father and myself (they will not be handled by anyone else on our farm).  We have very rarely had to give our cattle antibiotics and if we do it is because of a sickness that if left untreated could cause suffering and/or death in that animal.  Even if we do give a round of antibiotics to an animal we do not worry about a residual in their meat because there are known, published withdrawal guidelines on those products before you are to have the meat processed.  Our steak and ground beef is absolutely delicious–if I do say so myself. If our steaks were graded most would be in the prime category.  Our beef could also qualify to be called natural, grass fed, and humanely raised.  We would not qualify for organic because the feed mixed on the farm comes from conventionally grown corn sources.  And occasionally we have to use an antibiotic. We do not add hormones to any of our cattle.  Although this may be a good time to note that hormone implants in feeder cattle do not raise the hormone level beyond natural levels found in heifers. There are many vegetables (and birth control) that have much higher hormone levels than beef ever has.  But that’s a conversation for another day….

USDA has not adopted an official definition of the term grass fed beef, but it generally means beef from cattle that have eaten only grass or forage throughout their lives.  However, some producers do call their beef grass fed, then actually finish the animals on grain for the last 90 to 160 days before slaughter.

USDA’s definition of natural is:  a product containing no artificial ingredient or added color that is only minimally processed.  Minimal processing means that the product was processed in a manner that does not fundamentally alter the product.  The label must include a statement explaining the meaning of the term natural (such as “no artificial ingredients; minimally processed”).

Certified humane means that the product meets the Humane Farm Animal Care program standards, which includes nutritious diet without antibiotics or hormones, animals raised with shelter, resting areas, sufficient space and the ability to engage in natural behaviors.                     

*USDA National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) definition, April 1995

  • “Organic agriculture is an ecological production management system that promotes and enhances biodiversity, biological cycles and soil biological activity. It is based on minimal use of off-farm inputs and on management practices that restore, maintain and enhance ecological harmony.
  • “‘Organic’ is a labeling term that denotes products produced under the authority of the Organic Foods Production Act. The principal guidelines for organic production are to use materials and practices that enhance the ecological balance of natural systems and that integrate the parts of the farming system into an ecological whole.
  • “Organic agriculture practices cannot ensure that products are completely free of residues; however, methods are used to minimize pollution from air, soil and water.
  • “Organic food handlers, processors and retailers adhere to standards that maintain the integrity of organic agricultural products. The primary goal of organic agriculture is to optimize the health and productivity of interdependent communities of soil life, plants, animals and people.”

*From USDA.

When I look at the above definition of organic agriculture I can’t help but think that responsible conventional farmers are and have been doing those things.  They work hard to enhance soil, minimize pollution and optimize the health of soil life, plants, animals and people.  After all, conventional farmers are the original stewards of the land.  They are the ones that want most to see it preserved for future generations because they truly believe that farming enhances and enriches people’s lives–the producers and the consumers.

I understand that not all farmers are doing the best that they can do.  Unfortunately, this is true in every industry and in every organization or association.  Even at church there are people that are devoted servants, then there are those that do the bare minimum and there are also those that cause disruption or dissention amongst believers, perhaps not truly Christians or believers at all.  Dr. Temple Grandin has acknowledged that industrial agriculture is focused on humane care of their animals:

“These days there’s a group of people who raise animals that do an absolutely excellent job. Then there’s a large group in the middle that sometimes treat their animals very well, but if they’re not careful, can slip back into the old ways.  Finally, there are about 10 percent at the bottom who really have no business working with animals.”  Grandin talked a bit about animal-rights activists who hold extreme views:  “Many of them live in large cities and have had no actual contact with animals.  With them, it’s all theoretical.  In fact, a lack of direct experience can lead to extreme views on all sides of an issue.”-Dr. Temple Grandin, Ph.D.

Lack of experience and education can lead to extreme one-sided views of issues.  I also contend that lack of discussion–respectful honest conversation–on important ag issues can cause extremist and separatist views toward practices on which we are not that far apart. 

We also raise chickens–broilers.  These are the birds grown for meat.  Most farms in Georgia grow for integrators.  This means that a company has created a network of farmers and inputs that takes the chicken all the way from egg to meat. 

**Vertical integration in the chicken industry means:

  • Less man hours to produce more chickens, due to improved technology and larger flock sizes;
  • A reduction in the amount of feed required to produce a pound of broiler meat, due to continual discoveries in genetics and nutrition;
  • A reduced growing period to produce a market broiler chicken, meaning reduced space, labor, equipment and a much smaller environmental impact;
  • Better health programs for the welfare of birds; and
  • Being able to go to the market at any time of the year and buy tender, flavorful chicken products at a price that is very kind to your budget.

**From the National Chicken Council

There is currently a push from an organic group to end the production of vertically integrated poultry producers and instead raise pastured poultry.  There are some benefits to what they are saying about pastured poultry.  Good for local food movements, having direct contact with your chicken grower, and more.  But the inefficiencies of this type of production would not only have huge economic consequences, but would also lead to just as many production issues as they are claiming for poultry houses.  EPA regulates large poultry farms to ensure that waters are protected from pollutants.  Production practices such as stackhouses help poultry farmers to reduce pathogens in litter (chicken manure) by 96%.  Farmers utilize nutrient management plans when applying this reduced pathogen litter to pastures so that it is not overapplied.  Composters are used to create a beneficial soil amendment from a mix of litter and mortalities.  (Yes chicken mortality is a fact of life in all types of chicken production–organic, pastured, conventional, small farm, etc.)

The points written above are just the tip of the iceburg when it comes to talking about current agricultural issues.  The main point I want to emphasize today is that the ag industry must unite in its efforts to feed our country and our world.  We are one group that serves many invaluable purposes and various niche markets.  There is no reason why we cannot work together to offer advice and share information on the issues of humane animal care and environmental stewardship.  We are all (or at least 90% of us) across the entire agricultural industry–organic to conventional–working to be the kind of people that show the utmost respect for the land, the animals and the people in our lives.  We must be sure to treat each other as the family we are and not bickering, disrepectful siblings that just can’t seem to get along.