Farm Aid benefit concerts are supposed to be about raising money to help family farmers. Last week’s Farm Aid event, however, seems to have had more to do with benefiting the multibillion dollar organic milk industry – at the expense of those same family farmers and the environment.
This year’s Farm Aid concert was held on Sep. 30 in Camden, N.J. The major sponsors included Silk Soymilk and Horizon Organic – brands owned by Dean Foods, the largest U.S. dairy company with more than $10 billion in annual revenues; Whole Foods Markets – the $5.4 billion organic foods supermarket chain and retailer of Dean Foods’ products; and the Organic Trade Association, the industry lobby whose members include the aforementioned Silk, Horizon and Whole Foods.
Farm Aid’s “support family farmers” theme appears limited to small, struggling and organic farms. The organizers and spokespeople generally espouse a negative view of larger, technologically sophisticated and more profitable conventional farms.
Another Farm Aid theme is the saving the environment. One sponsor’s media release describes how it bought wind energy credits to offset all the energy used to put on the show and by the show-goers driving from miles around. A third Farm Aid theme is educating the public about agriculture.
But in light of Farm Aid’s sponsorship by the organic food industry -- notably the organic milk industry -- all three themes are bitterly ironic for small farmers.
Support family farmers? Recent news stories report that Dean Foods’ milk plants in the Northeast will stop accepting milk from farmers who choose to supplement their cows with rbST -- a synthetic version of a naturally occurring hormone in cows. Farmers use rbST to increase their farms’ milk production with fewer cows and at lower cost.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration and other international regulatory bodies have checked and double-checked to make sure that rbST is safe for cows and that the cow’s milk is safe for humans. Not only is rbST safe, but no difference can be detected in milk from supplemented- versus unsupplemented-cows.
Dean Foods controls most of the milk market in the Northeast, so the company can dictate how farmers produce milk. Since rbST enables farmers to produce more milk with fewer cows, the loss of this technology will very likely cost farmers far more than whatever “aid” they will get from this year’s Farm Aid.
The organic food sponsors also fall short on the environment theme.
Whether it’s rbST, crop protection products for growing feed for dairy cows or pharmaceutical products that keep cows healthy, dairy farmers produce more milk today than they did 50 years ago and they do it with about 60 percent fewer cows -- gains made possible through modern advances in agricultural technologies.
If organic food companies want to roll back the clock on modern technology, we’re going to need a lot more cows – as well as the feed, water, and land to support them. Without pesticides, more land must be used to grow more crops to produce needed feed. For those worried about global warming, more cows means greater production of methane, a major greenhouse gas. There’s also the added manure from more cows which environmentalists blame for polluting surface and groundwater.
Suddenly, organic doesn’t sound so eco-friendly after all.
Finally, there is Farm Aid’s effort to teach the public about agriculture. Organic marketers imply and state that their products are healthier. But this is simply not true.
No scientific study shows that organic foods are safer, healthier or more nutritious than conventional foods. The “organic” label only means that the products were raised inefficiently without benefit of several modern technologies.
Milk -- whether organic, conventional or conventional produced without use of rbST -- is all the same stuff. Marketing and labels that imply otherwise hardly educate the public. Mostly, they line the pockets of the companies selling them at a premium -- as much as twice the price of conventional milk.
Topping all this off is the Farm Aid caricature of the proper farmer as “small scale.” Farm Aid sponsor Horizon is the biggest organic milk brand in the U.S. and buys much of its milk from large farms that milk thousands of cows. Horizon’s large-scale dairy farming has riled the likes of the organic food fundamentalists at the Cornucopia Institute, which gave Horizon a one-cow rating (out of five possible) and labeled the company as “ethically-challenged.”
This, of course, wasn’t mentioned at Farm Aid.
If the Farm Aid folks really wanted to help farmers, they would have the same standards and expectations for food production as they do for the production of other consumer and industrial goods -- safety, efficiency, affordability and reduced environmental impact. A more appropriate Farm Aid message might be: “If you want to help a farmer, help the environment and save some money, don’t buy organic milk.”