This mother is ready to wean her baby from the breast:
My son just turned 12 months old and I am ready to stop nursing him. My question: should I buy organic whole milk or just give him the regular stuff?
From an environmental (and moral) standpoint, I think few would argue that organic farming practices in general are less damaging to the ecosystem and the organisms who reside in it. This includes the dairy cattle themselves, who probably experience more space, grass, and sunshine than those who live on conventional dairy farms. If growing organic food means fewer pesticides, antibiotics, and hormones in our diet, and a better life for the animals, then that’s a win for all of us! However, one should not overlook the environmental (and nutritional) benefits of eating meat and produce raised and grown locally, even if it’s done conventionally. Moving food — organic or conventional — across state and international borders leaves a big carbon footprint. Shorter truck trips from farms to local markets utilize less fuel and results in less air pollution. It also means less time elapses from farm to table, so the quality of the food should be better. Food from local sources helps our farmer-neighbors thrive while improving the local economy. That’s all good!
From an economic standpoint, organic milk is more expensive than conventional milk — twice as expensive, in fact. If your family drinks a lot of milk, cost may point you towards the conventional milk shelf.
From a nutritional standpoint, any benefit organic food has nutritionally over conventionally grown food has been shown to be not very significant.
From a health standpoint… well, I guess that’s why you’re asking!
The main knock on conventional milk is that it can contain hormones (rBGH — recombinant bovine growth hormone; and rBST — recombinant bovine somatotropin) to help dairy cows produce more milk, antibiotics to prevent and treat infections, and pesticides, which can be found in the feed of dairy cattle. The USDA spells out the requirements for milk to be called “organic” on its website:
… [O]rganic milk must come from a certified organic cow. The organic cow cannot be given growth hormones or antibiotics, and its feed must be 100 percent organic. Organic feed comes from land not treated with any prohibited substances (e.g., synthetic fertilizers and most synthetic pesticides) for at least 3 years prior to harvest. The land must be managed in a way that maintains soil fertility and minimizes erosion, while distinct and defined boundaries make sure prohibited substances don’t come into contact with organic fields. The animal grazes on organic pastures for the entire grazing season, which must be at least 120 days a year, and receives at least 30 percent of its nutrition from pasture during the grazing season.
Throughout its life, the animal is raised in living conditions that accommodate its natural behaviors and support its health and welfare. If it gets sick and needs treatment with antibiotics or other drugs, organic standards require that it receive these treatments but then must be removed from organic production. In other words, product from treated animals can no longer be sold, labeled, or represented as organic. However, operators are forbidden to withhold medical treatment from a sick animal in an effort to preserve its organic status.
Mark Lallanilla reminds us of what “organic” isn’t (or may not be):
Not cheaper: Expect to pay more for organic food, since it requires more labor to bring to market.
Not more nutritious: There’s little or no evidence that organic food contains more nutrients than commercially grown food.
A regular orange, for example, has about the same amount of vitamin C as an organic orange.
Not clean: You should still wash organic produce to remove dirt and bacteria, and take all normal food-handling precautions when preparing organic meats and other foods.
Not pesticide-free: While most synthetic pesticides are disallowed under the USDA organic program, copper compounds, tetracycline, streptomycin and dozens of other pesticides are allowed under certain circumstances.
Not local: Organic produce can come from miles away, and may require lots of energy to transport.
Not always healthy: Organic foods can still contain high levels of fat, sugar, sodium and other not-so-healthy ingredients. As food writer Marion Nestle often states, organic junk food is still junk food.
The point is, like most things controversial, organic milk is probably not as great as its proponents say it is and conventional milk is probably not as bad as its detractors say it is.
I’ll leave the choice to you!
What type of milk do you buy for your family? Reply below in the “Comments” section below.