The three attributes that are prohibited in organic feed, but that are standard practice for non-organic, are 1) use of petroleum-based pesticides and fertilizers on the grain, 2) genetically engineered grain and 3) antibiotics in the feed. The first two are not unrelated, as you probably know. The reason for the engineering in genetically-engineered crops is to introduce traits that either replicate pesticides (Bt corn, for example) or that make the plant tolerate herbicides (Roundup Ready crops). So the use of GM crops, among other problems, leads to more insecticide and herbicide in the environment. Although it won’t be on the label, grain that is not organic has a high probability of being GM. According to USDA stats (from 2007, so the figure could be higher now), 73% of corn, 91% of soy, 75% of canola, and virtually all sugarbeets grown in the US are from genetically modified seed.
Insecticides and herbicides sprayed on grain that is subsequently eaten by animals builds up as residues in their meat, especially in the fatty tissues. And it also builds up in the human who later consumes that meat. Pesticide exposure in humans is linked to lymphoma, asthma, alzheimers, infertility, neurological disorders, and fatal birth defects. Many pesticides are known endocrine disruptors, which is fancy science talk for messing up your hormones – which regulate things like brain function, insulin, reproduction, metabolism, building muscle mass, etc. This looks to me like a list of the top health problems in the US. Funny that their connection with pesticides is not widely discussed in the media.
Although avoiding direct consumption of pesticide-riddled food is desirable on its own, there’s also the larger picture to consider. As this wikipedia article reminds us, pesticides don’t just go on the target plant, they go all over the place, disbursing through the air and flowing along in ground and surface water, negatively impacting wildlife and people who live downstream or downwind, leading to a long chain of ecological impact. Farm workers exposed to synthetic chemicals have a much larger incidence of cancer, chronic diarrhea, and other diseases than the general population. Their life expectancy of 49 years(!) (compared to 75 for an average American) is largely due to pesticide exposure. Their children have a much higher risk of developing fatal birth defects. Rural communities near cropland where pesticides are applied also see increased incidence of these diseases (see this PANNA article).
The harmful effects of pesticides on wildlife (birds, plants, aquatic animals) are too numerous to list. One of the founding principles we base our practices on, is to raise food without negatively impacting wildlife. Wikipedia reports that “The USDA and USFWS estimate that about 20% of the endangered and threatened species in the US are jeopardized by use of pesticides”. Wow. Count me out. Pesticides seem to be particularly harmful to natural pest reducers, such as frogs, lacewings, lady bugs, etc. So the application of pesticides reduces the natural system’s ability to control pests, thus deepening the farmer’s dependence on the pesticide. What a beautiful system for the pesticide salesman. Natural pollinators, such as honeybees, are also harmed by pesticides.
On top of all of these issues, the age of energy descent is upon us. Synthetic pesticides and herbicides, being derived from petroleum, deepen the dependence of agriculture on petroleum-based inputs. We would rather reduce our reliance on petroleum, and reward those grain growers who are doing the same. (Realizing, of course, that there are many other petroleum dependencies built into our supply and distribution chain).
Turning to the issue of GM crops, when growers switch to Roundup-ready crops, which are engineered to withstand being sprayed with herbicide, they typically use more herbicide for weed control than they would without the GM trait. This leads to an arms race with the weeds. The weeds develop more tolerance, more herbicide must be applied, and the cycle repeats. It is estimated that US farmers apply 15 times more herbicide on GM cropland than on non GM. The herbicide-resistance is leading to the development of so-called super-weeds, which are now basically unstoppable. Read more about this on source watch . Besides their encouraging more herbicide use, GM crops are a prime suspect in the incredible increase in food allergies in recent years. They have also been shown to cause liver and kidney damage in lab animals. There are many other reasons to be wary of GM crops (genetic contamination to other open pollinating crops, for one), and we would rather our dollars go to grain farmers who choose not to raise them.
Then there is the issue of antibiotics. Organic animal feed does not contain antibiotics, but conventionally raised animals are given low daily doses of antibiotics in their feed. Not only to counteract the prevalence of disease that goes hand-in-hand with high-density factory farms, but also as a growth stimulant (meat animals put on weight faster when given the antibiotics). This practice contributes to antibiotic-resistant bacteria. We may face a future where infectious diseases are not controllable, largely because of our profligate use of antibiotics for livestock. CBS news even did a piece on this problem. A recent report finds that antibiotic-resitant traits are building up in soil microorganisms. MRSA is a growing cause for concern, especially its increasing presence in medical facilities.
I could probably come up with more reasons, but those are my top 6. Taken all together, the decision to buy organic food for our animals seems clear. There is a growing recognition that animal feed crops are a large source of ecological damage – both in terms of pollution and climate change – (see the FAO report Livestock’s Long Shadow), but organic feed does lessen some of that impact. When you buy meat, dairy, and eggs, I hope you will keep these points in mind and buy organic.