Ontario is getting steamed over milk

fridge full of milk
CC BY 2.0 teakwood

One newspaper says there is no difference between organic and conventional milk; another says the test pool is far too small to make that conclusion.

Canada's largest newspaper, The Star, shocked the nation last week with news that organic milk is "no different" from conventional milk. An investigation was conducted across the province of Ontario, visiting both conventional and organic dairy producers to view facilities and talk to farmers. Different varieties of milk were tested in a lab for fatty acid content and pesticides, and industry experts were interviewed. Their conclusion?

"The nutritional content, the synthetic vitamin D added after pasteurization, the levels of pesticides and metals and heart healthy fats – all the same. And Canadian law forbids antibiotics and added growth hormones in any kind of milk."

This was not what many Canadians expected to hear. At a time when fewer people are drinking milk, the organic dairy industry is holding steady, contributing $77 million last year to the $5-billion organics industry. Organic milk is perceived as having a "health halo", which is why shoppers are willing to pay almost double for it, but as the Star reveals, these beliefs are

"cultivated by mischaracterizations about conventional milk and a 100-year-old, mystical farming philosophy that denounces regular milk producers as too reliant on chemicals."

What the Star says is that the only significant difference between the two kinds of milk is paperwork. Organic farmers are required to log every action and leave a detailed paper trail for the investigators that check up on them every year to ensure they retain their organic certification. That paper trail must indicate a legitimate effort to follow guidelines, rather than actually carrying them out. The Star described visiting one organic farmer in Chatsworth, ON.

"From a filing cabinet in his barn he pulls out a 'seed search affidavit' showing that he called two different seed manufacturers to find organic 'pioneer yellow' grain corn, before he ended up using a conventional variety that was not genetically modified. The Star found that documenting unsuccessful efforts to find organic seed or manure before using non-organic varieties is a common occurrence."

When it comes to nutritional content, the same proportions of omega 3s and omega 6s were found in both organic and conventional milks, "indicating the cows producing Ontario’s organic milk are likely not grazing any more than conventional cows"; and there were no trace pesticides. Unlike in the United States, antibiotics and growth hormones are not allowed under Canadian law. (Cows in both types of farms can be treated with antibiotics, but must be kept out of the supply chain until all traces are gone.)

What about the treatment of animals?

This is where it's a little tougher to follow the Star's findings. The report essentially argues that there's little difference in the way the animals are cared for, and that a conventional farmer that does his or her job well treats the animals with as much respect as an organic farmer. In fact, it says the conventional barns "appeared larger, cleaner, and quieter" than organic ones, complete with professional toenail cutters and back-scratchers. Readers may be surprised to find that many organic farms do their milking with laser-guided robots, no human hands required, and can still chain cows in their stalls for up to 21 hours a day.

One large conventional farm in Ancaster County received most of the report's attention, and it does sound like a truly remarkable place with a conscientious owner, Dave Loewith, who said,

“It’s my job to keep these gals happy. There’s a reason they call it animal husbandry: you’re married to them.”

But it's hard to imagine that all conventional farms take their husbandry as seriously as Loewith does. It would have been nice if the Star had visited more conventional farms to get a broader view of the situation because, as someone who lives in farming country, I know I've seen things that are not nearly as nice.

Take, for example, my visit to a beef farm this spring, also near Chatsworth. The farmer, who described himself as raising animals without antibiotics, took my kids to see his new calves -- but there also happened to be a dying mother on the floor. She was gasping, shaking, bleeding. "Can't you do something?" I asked in horror. "Nah," he said, poking her with his boot. "Called the vet earlier, just because this was her first calf and she was a nice heifer when I got her last year, but she'll be gone soon. Normally I wouldn't bother with the vet." His nonchalance made the situation even more traumatic for both me and the kids, who asked what was wrong with the mommy cow for days afterward.

My point is, you can likely find different kinds of treatment in either strain of agriculture, but my concern is that if there's no regular oversight and required paperwork, in the way that organic mandates, you can get situations like the one I witnessed -- but then, who knows. I am not a farmer, and that kind of situation could very well arise in organic barns, too.

The Star's biggest competition, the Globe and Mail, has challenged the report's findings, calling its research pool absurdly small, little more than "an anecdote." The Globe replicated the Star's lab tests with a slightly larger test pool (7 kinds of milk).

"Make no mistake, this is still a laughably small sample size. But our results match what numerous scientific studies have found, and they were revealing. We repeated our tests, just to be sure. The organic milks we tested contained significantly different quantities of omega-6 and omega-3 fats. One organic milk had a ratio of omega-6s to omega-3s of 2:1. At the other end of the spectrum, one conventional milk had a ratio of 4.9:1."

It looks like the battle of the milks will continue for some time in Ontario. In the meantime, I'll keep buying organic milk whenever possible because it's the only kind that comes in refillable glass jars -- and that's a good enough reason for me.

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