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California Lowers Requirements For Organic Label Under Drought Conditions

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Your organic meat and dairy isn’t quite as organic as it was last year.

A variance issued last month by the U.S. Department of Agriculture is allowing organic livestock farmers in California to temporarily abandon the feeding standards that allow them to label their product as organic. Due to a lack of grass -- which livestock typically must graze on four months out of the year to be considered organic -- farmers whose grazing season includes February and March do not have to grass-feed their livestock during those months, effectively slashing organic requirements in half.

During that time, “organic ruminant livestock producers … are not required to graze or provide dry matter intake from pasture during this time period,” the variance states. “Producers may reduce their 2014 grazing season by the number of days that correspond to this time period in their grazing plan.”

The USDA issued the variance after receiving requests from the California Certified Organic Farmers (CCOF) and Marin Organic Certified Agriculture and will only apply it to farmers operating in the 53 out of 58 counties that have been declared primary natural disaster areas, where the devastating statewide drought has left farmers without the grass that makes their product organic.

“It’s huge because we still don’t have pasture for cows to graze on,” Albert Straus of the Straus Family Creamery in Petaluma told The Guardian. “We lost at least a month to a month-and-a-half of pasture,” he said, noting that the grass dried up back in December.

According to the CCOF, organic producers are only allowed to substitute their livestock’s grass diet with organic feed, but other advocates for pesticide-free farming warn that this is still an unfortunate reinterpretation of what it means to farm organically.

“It’s a necessary evil,” Ronnie Cummuns, national director of the Organic Consumers Association, told The Huffington Post. “We’ll support this variance if that’s the only alternative,” he said, emphasizing that temporary exceptions like this pose a threat to organic standards if their end date isn’t secured. According to the USDA, the variance is temporary, but further action could be taken if the drought persists.

Resorting to organic or non-organic feed, typically corn or soy-based according to Cummins, robs consumers of the nutritional benefits of grass-fed meat and dairy, he told HuffPost.

“Grass-fed dairy or beef has higher levels of Omega-3 and Omega-6, which is extremely important in human health,” he said. “There’s no doubt that feeding grain to animals that aren’t supposed to be eating grain is not good for them, not good for the environment and not good for consumers,” noting that feed production is incredibly energy intensive. “Pretty much any farmer knows that the cows would be healthier and the end product would be better if you have them out on pasture.”

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U.S. Drought 2012-2013
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