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Thursday, September 02, 2010

Tradeoffs

I have, from time to time, written about organic farming and organic produce. Usually my comments are somewhat negative, largely because the alleged benefits of organic food are speculative at best and because the costs are quite real. Usually when I refer to the "costs" of organic food, I'm talking economics, but today... not so much:

The triumph of purist ideology over compassion and science means suffering and death for organic farm animals across America.

The week-old dairy calf, gangly and still, lay on a barn floor, her long-lashed eyes rolled back to expose the blue-white rim. The next morning, when I went to help my neighbor with his newborns, the calf was dead.

Department of Agriculture (USDA) regulations defining organic standards mandate that if this calf had gotten one dose of antibiotics, even to save her life, she could never give organic milk—even after the two years it takes for her to become a milker, and even though neither she nor her milk would retain any trace of antibiotics.

Farmers are not generally callous or cruel, but neither are they sentimental. Organic standards mandate that they take all measures to save the life of an animal, but treatment strategies can be subjective, and loss of organic status factors into a farmer’s decision. After all, antibiotics don’t always work, and sometimes animals recover without them. So decent farmers wait while an animal suffers, and crosses that line past which no intervention can reverse the slide to death.


Arguably the 100% ban on antibiotics under the U.S. standard was imposed partly at the instigation of "Big Agriculture,"* who may have thought that the embedded inhumanity would spell organic farming's doom. Fair enough, that seems somewhat plausible though I am usually reluctant to accept conspiracy theories on general principle, but there remain members of the organic farming community who support the 100% ban. And believe it or not, they go even farther with it:

Allowing one-time therapeutic antibiotics is “a slippery slope,” says Ronnie Cummins, national director of the Organic Consumers Association, and would “undermine consumer confidence in organics. It’s the same position [I have] as on human vaccines. They are dangerous, and that’s why I didn’t vaccinate my kid.”


So, not only are we being told that we shouldn't give any antibiotics whatsoever to sick animals because it might- in some mysterious way- taint the end product, but now we're being told not to vaccinate our children against real and life threatening diseases because of a repeatedly falsified danger. And somehow, the "logic" that argues for one also argues for the other. Folks, that ain't logic, that's superstition.

I'm not about to argue that factory farming methods are humane or healthy, they're not, but at the same time just because something is "natural" doesn't make it safer or healthier. Natural can be a good way to get yourself killed and sometimes a little bit of the unnatural is just what the doctor ordered.


* Handy tip: if you ever want to discredit something without having to use an actual argument, just tack "big" onto the front. It's easy!

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