Will Allen & Michael Colby: Dairy Marketing vs. Reality

Author: Will Allen and Michael Colby

Editor’s note: This commentary is by Will Allen and Michael Colby, who are co-founders, along with Kate Duesterberg, of Regeneration Vermont, a new nonprofit educational and advocacy organization that is working to halt the catastrophic consequences of Vermont’s adoption of degenerative, toxic and climate-threatening agricultural techniques.

The great divide between the well-marketed image of Vermont dairy farming and its stark and toxic realities is becoming harder and harder to ignore. The marketing shows healthy cows grazing on lush pastures. But the reality is cows on concrete, being fed a diet of GMO-corn and the toxic residues from the hundreds of thousands of pounds of herbicides sprayed annually on the corn and hay fields.

Instead of addressing the toxic legacy of the very non-organic dairying that dominates our agriculture, Vermont’s two giant diary corporations, Cabot Creamery and Ben & Jerry’s, and the state’s agricultural agency that acts more as their protector than regulator, continue to hide behind the myth and the marketing. It’s a head-in-the-sand approach that is bankrupting farmers, poisoning our rivers and lakes, accelerating climate change, and producing dairy products that may contain those same toxic residues that are so abundantly fed to the cows.

Vermont can do better, much better. And it has to start with addressing the cold, hard facts. Thankfully, Vermont farmers are required to report their pesticide, herbicide and fertilizer usage every year to the state’s Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets (AAFM). And while some in the agency and within the agricultural community still try to spin the numbers to keep the myths alive, the reality can’t be ignored: Vermont is farming with more and more toxic chemicals.


How to regenerate organic – privatize it

Author: Craig Sams

How can we free organic from its self-imposed bureaucratic box? We could always ask Brussels to privatize us, says Craig Sams

Q. What do Slow Food, LEAF, Fairtrade, Rainforest Alliance, Cosmos, Marine Stewardship Council, Red Tractor, Vegan, Vegetarian, Forestry Stewardship Council (FSC) and Woodmark all have in common?

A. They all operate trusted authentication symbols that are 100% independent. They can decide what they can certify and how they can certify.

Q. What do the Soil Association, Ecocert, EKO, KRAV, Nature et Progres, OCIA, QAI, OFF, OF&G and 400 or so other organic symbols have in common?

A. They operate trusted authentication symbols that are 100% Government-controlled. They cannot decide what they can certify and how they can certify.

This ‘nationalisation’ of organic certification didn’t happen by accident or by force, we actually asked for it. The independent symbols have grown organically to global respect and stature while the organic ‘brands’ have been stifled in their self-imposed bureaucratic box.

“This ‘nationalisation’ of organic certification didn’t happen by accident or by force, we actually asked for it”

Back in the late 1980s I got to know key players at the Soil Association (up till then we were OF&G licensees). When I heard they were seeking to get the EU to enforce organic standards I was dismayed. Francis Blake of IFOAM and the Soil Association told me that if I wanted to have any influence I should stand for the Soil Association board. I did and didn’t get elected. Boo Hoo. But the Council wanted me anyway and appointed me Treasurer In 1990. I argued from within against letting our precious organic standards go under the control of the agricultural departments which subsidised industrial farming and were 100% behind GMOs. Regrettably the train had already left the station and, short of tying myself to the tracks, there was nothing I could do to stop it.

The infant organic industry was stressed about fraudulent claims and thought calling in big brother would stop that. In fact the opposite happened. When the Soil Association sampled a licensee’s oat flakes a few years ago and found chlormequat residues at quite a high level they told the licensee to take them off the market. Defra and UKAS and the oat processor who supplied them all cried foul. The paperwork was in order, that was all that mattered to the enforcers. The Soil Association came close to being banned from certifying but luckily the horsemeat scandal broke out and the EU said lab sampling of products should be permitted.


General Mills Partners with Organic Valley

Minneapolis, MNGeneral Mills announced last week that it entered into a strategic sourcing partnership with Organic Valley, the largest U.S. organic cooperative. This partnership will help 20 dairy farms add 3,000 acres to organic dairy production over the next three years, building upon General Mills’ commitment to double its organic acreage by 2019.

In recent years, the company has become the number three maker of natural and organic foods, with nine brands, including EPIC Provisions and Annie’s. General Mills’ yogurt operating unit also includes Yoplait, Mountain High and Liberté, which will be transitioning to USDA certified organic to roll out nationwide in the summer.

“To ensure we are able to deliver great tasting organic yogurt offerings to our consumers we are committed to supporting a framework in partnership with Organic Valley that will not only ensure a consistent supply chain, but also make it easier for dairy farmers to successfully manage through the transition to organic,” said David Clark, president of the General Mills Yogurt Operating Unit in a press release. The partnership will help ease the burden on organic agriculture—which only accounts for 1% of total cropland—as farms transition conventional acreage to organic over the ensuing three years.


Our Fossil-Fuel Economy Destroys the Earth and Exploits Humanity – Here’s the Shift We Need to Be Sustainable

Author: Iliana Salazar-Dodge

I am a Mexican immigrant and a senior at Columbia University who’s been organizing around fossil fuel divestment since freshman year. Two years ago, I had a bit of a crisis. I suddenly felt disillusioned with the movement—not with the tactic of divestment, but rather with the fact that national campaigns were solely focused on taking down the fossil fuel behemoth. Don’t get me wrong; it’s extremely satisfying to hear of another divestment win, to see the fossil fuel industry take a hit. But I began to realize that while we need people to fight the bad in this world, we also need people creating the society we do want to live in. I want to be one of those people.

That summer, as a 350.org Fossil Free Fellow, I was introduced to the reinvestment campaign. I learned about a way that we, as students, can build off the successes of the divestment movement to fight for what we want. This campaign is one tactic we can use to facilitate the transition out of our current economy into a regenerative economy. But before we talk about where we want to go, let’s talk about where we are now.

America’s extractive economy

Whether or not we care to admit it, our current economy is extractive—that is, it’s built on the exploitation and extraction of human labor and the earth’s resources. It relies on corporations that force workers to work long hours in unsafe conditions for insufficient wages and benefits. It exists by the continual removal of nutrients from the soil, minerals from the mountains, and fossil fuels from underground. This system isn’t working for us today, and it isn’t going to work for us tomorrow. We know that infinite growth is not possible, but this economy depends on it.

Regenerative economy

In contrast, a regenerative economy satisfies the needs of the present planet without diminishing the prospects of future generations. It builds community wealth by shifting economic power, making workers the owners of their own businesses, community members the decision makers about their resources. It also strengthens the public sector such that it serves the people rather than private interests. A just transition to a regenerative economy restores our relationship to food, Mother Earth and our communities.


Beyond Carbon Metrics

Authors: Camila Moreno, Lili Fuhr, and Daniel Speich

Over the last 10 years, “climate change” has become almost synonymous with “carbon emissions.” The reduction of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, measured in tons of “carbon equivalents” (CO2e) has emerged as the paramount objective in the quest to preserve the planet. But such a simplistic approach cannot possibly resolve the highly complex and interconnected ecological crises that we currently face.

Global environmental policy’s single-minded focus on “carbon metrics” reflects a broader obsession with measurement and accounting. The world runs on abstractions—calories, miles, pounds, and now tons of CO2e—that are seemingly objective and reliable, especially when embedded in “expert” (often economic) language. As a result, we tend to overlook the effects of each abstraction’s history, and the dynamics of power and politics that continue to shape it.

One key example of a powerful and somewhat illusory global abstraction is the gross domestic product (GDP), which was adopted as the main measure of a country’s economic development and performance after World War II, when world powers were building international financial institutions that were supposed to reflect relative economic power. Today, however, GDP has become a source of widespread frustration, as it fails to reflect the realities of people’s lives. Like a car’s high beams, abstractions can be very illuminating; but they can also render invisible what lies outside their light.

Nonetheless, GDP remains by far the dominant measure of economic prosperity, reflecting the obsession with universality that accompanied the spread of capitalism worldwide. Complex, nuanced, and qualitative imaginings that reflect local specificities are simply not as appealing as linear, overarching, and quantitative explanations.


One Way to Get Big Agriculture to Clean up Its Act

Author: Tamar Haspel

This month, I set out to discover whether what we think of as “Big Ag” is cleaning up its act.

What’s to clean up? There’s widespread agreement that, as industrial agriculture has intensified over the past 75 years, concentrating on relatively few crops and dramatically increasing yields, it has also polluted waterways and degraded soil. But we’ve also seen increased focus on such practices as no-till farming and cover cropping, which mitigate or even reverse that damage. How widespread are those practices? Are they having an impact?

I found out. I wrote a column about it. It was boring.

So I scrapped that draft, and I decided to write a different column. Because what’s interesting about these conservation practices is that they raise the possibility of constructive change in one of the most contentious issues in agriculture: government subsidies.

First, though, you should know that, yes, Big Ag is at least beginning to clean up, but adoption of conservation practices still has a long way to go. No-till (growing crops without plowing up the soil) is used on about 38 percent of the acreage of America’s four biggest crops but doesn’t seem to be increasing. (Corn is holding steady; soy has ticked down.) Fertilizer use remains stubbornly high. Cover cropping (growing crops over the winter or at fallow times so the soil isn’t bare) inspires enthusiasm and wins converts — it’s the Bernie Sanders of conservation practices — but as of 2012, the first year the USDA tracked it, it was used on less than 5 percent of crop acreage.

Not all practices are appropriate for all farms, of course, and many of the practices being implemented are too new to be reflected in USDA data. But I found general agreement that farmers are increasingly focused on these issues and that conservation, particularly in the face of climate change, is important to them.

There. Aren’t you glad I spared you the 1,200 words?

Let’s talk, instead, about money. If conservation practices are to be implemented more broadly, somebody has to pay.


Carbon Farming – Agriculture’s Answer to Climate Change?

On April 12, the Department of Energy’s Advanced Research Projects Agency – Energy (ARPA-E) announced a new funding opportunity aimed at increasing the carbon storage potential of U.S. agricultural soils.  Land-use, which includes agriculture, is responsible for 25 percent of total greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. While reducing fossil energy use is key to limiting warming to the internationally agreed less than 2 degrees Celsius, it will be impossible to meet climate targets if emissions associated with land-use are not also addressed. At the same time, modern agricultural practices have severely depleted the natural reserve of soil carbon; however addressing soil carbon can reduce emissions associated with agriculture and store additional carbon in the soil.  This article explores both low- and high-tech approaches to “carbon farming” and the political and social appetite to use agriculture as a means to address climate change.

The ARPA-E initiative — Rhizosphere Observations Optimizing Terrestrial Sequestration (or ROOTS), will use modern breeding and genomic tools to create crops that can help accelerate soil carbon storage. The agency expects to invest a total of $30 million in 8 to 12 projects that “modify, through targeted breeding and plant selection, crop plants to produce more roots, deeper in the soil profile,” which will in turn accelerate soil’s carbon storing abilities.  Through the ROOTS initiative, ARPA-E sets an ambitious target of a 50 percent increase in the carbon storage of soils, a 50 percent decrease in nitrogen emissions from conventional agriculture, and a 25 percent increase in water productivity. The net result would be a 10 percent reduction of total greenhouse gas emissions in the United States while also boosting the climate resilience of the agriculture sector.

ROOTS will fund projects that will advance data collection, modelling of the root-soil interaction and creation of new plant characteristics that could enable greater soil carbon storage.  ARPA-E estimates that 87 percent of current U.S. cropland could benefit from these as-of-yet developed carbon storing traits and could accelerate the carbon storage potential of U.S. soils.

ARPA-E is taking a high-tech approach to a long-understood problem – balancing soil carbon and agricultural productivity.  Modern agricultural practices, which have enabled ever higher agricultural yields and, therefore, lowered food prices and decreased food insecurity, have also reduced the soil’s carbon level. Carbon in soil is important because it helps store water, nutrients and regulate soil temperature. Increasing the amount of soil carbon can help address drought, water quality issues, nutrient management and climate resiliency – all thorny subjects in the agricultural world today.  Soil quality will also be key in addressing food security, as increasing soil carbon also translates to enhanced food production with potentially reduced inputs.

Through more traditional farming methods, or “back to basics” if you will, farmers, the USDA’s Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS), grower’s groups and others have been exploring the potential of conservation and other measures such as cover crops, no-till and the use of biochar, which not only decrease the amount of fossil inputs on the farm but also increase the soil’s ability to store carbon.  Just one example can be found on Dave Brandt’s Ohio wheat, corn and soy farm, where he hasn’t tilled the soil since 1972.  Every winter, he plants over 10 varieties of cover crops, providing continuous living cover over the soil – a key ingredient in not only building soil carbon but preserving water holding capacity of the soil and maintaining water quality. Independent scientists have estimated that Brandt has increased the carbon content of his soils an astounding 61 percent in the past 35 years, with his corn yields increasing by up to 44 percent.  Brandt and other farmers are proving that it’s possible to pair conservation with productivity.


Farmers are Capitalizing on Carbon Sequestration: How Much is Your Carbon-Rich Soil Worth?

Author: Brian Barth

Carbon farming—a catch-all phrase to describe the cultivation techniques that take carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere (where it causes global warming) and convert it into carbon-based compounds in the soil that aid plant growth—has long been touted as a way to enlist farmers in the fight against climate change. Thanks to the growing market for carbon sequestration, farmers could soon stand to profit from such good deeds.

Environmentally-minded farmers are well aware that building up soil carbon is one key to achieving high yields without chemical inputs. It’s through the expansion of global carbon markets, however, where polluting corporations purchase “carbon credits” to offset their carbon emissions, that farmers are starting to get paid for adopting these practices.

When these polluters purchase carbon credits, the money goes to another company, organization, or project that has prevented an equivalent amount of carbon dioxide or other greenhouse gases (GHGs) from entering the atmosphere (which can include a farmer). The transaction is mitigated by a broker, called a carbon registry. In the past, wind farms, solar panel facilities, and reforestation projects were among the most common recipients of carbon credits, but farm-based carbon credits are becoming more widely available. Notably, Australia, Alberta, Kenya, and California now have active programs to reward on-farm carbon sequestration.

Measuring the actual amount of carbon sequestered in soil and plants is a costly and inexact science, which is one reason that farm-based approaches haven’t been widely accepted by carbon credit programs yet. (It’s much easier to quantify reduced carbon emissions with things like solar power.) Rather than measuring the carbon sequestered on each farm, carbon credit programs rely on the average carbon sequestration ability of particular practices (like adding organic matter to the soil, planting cover crops, and reducing soil disturbance) that have been tested over time and scientifically verified. The bottom line is that farmers aren’t expected to calculate their own soil carbon levels—it’ll be inferred by the credit-granting organization based on their farming practices.

To help farmers get an idea of their current climate impacts and prospects for earning carbon credits, however, the USDA now has a free web-based tool called COMET-Farm, which provides an approximate carbon footprint based on user-supplied data and allows farmers to apply different land management scenarios to see which has the greatest carbon sequestering ability.

So how much might a farmer make for their soil carbon? Not much, at least not yet.

Here is how it works: Land-based carbon sequestration is measured in metric tons per hectare (2.5 acres); one metric ton earns one carbon credit, making the math easy. In California—the only state in the US with a full-fledged cap-and-trade program—the current value of a carbon credit is around $12 to $13. (Farmers in other states, by the way, are eligible to earn credits through the California carbon market.) Alberta, which has the most robust carbon market in Canada and rewards several agricultural practices with carbon credits, raised the price of carbon credits from $15 to $20 on January 1, 2016; in 2017, the price will go up to $30 per credit.


New Label Soon for Grass-Fed Milk and Yogurt

Author: Dr. Mercola

The secret is out: grass-fed dairy products are not only rich, creamy and reminiscent of the way dairy products used to be, but they’re also better for your health, the environment and the cows providing the milk.

As a result, demand for grass-fed dairy products is growing at an impressive rate. Organic, grass-fed yogurt, for instance, is experiencing 82 percent dollar growth, which is more than three times the growth of yogurt that does not contain the grass-fed label, according to Organic Valley dairy.1

Their “Grassmilk” brand is the top-selling grass-fed dairy brand in the U.S., and it’s had double-digit growth since its 2012 debut. Organic Valley stated that their Grassmilk goes beyond the pasturing standards for ruminants required by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) National Organic Program.

To be clear, there’s a lot of confusion about the term “grass-fed,” and in many cases, it’s an abused term like the word “natural.” Organic Valley and other U.S. grass-fed dairy producers are teaming up to change this, and the first steps have been laid for a new industry-wide grass-fed label for dairy.

New Industry Standard for Grass-Fed Labeling

The American Grassfed Association (AGA) hosted a stakeholder meeting to start the ball rolling on a new industry-wide grass-fed dairy standard. AGA explained:2

“Rapid growth of the grassfed dairy segment and the consequent proliferation of grass- and pasture-based claims pose a challenge for producers, retailers, and consumers in the dairy industry.

AGA convened the meeting to discuss mutual concerns about practices, standards, protection of legitimate claims, and avoidance of consumer confusion about grass-based products.”

The goals of the meeting included determining potential for agreement for standards for grass-fed dairy products, assessing options for protecting the integrity of grass-based dairy products and establishing a unified standard and market integrity. According to AGA, discussions centered on he following:

  • Animal health and nutrition
  • Transparency of practices and claims
  • Holistic land and soil management
  • Support and validation for producers
  • Building a certified organic standard while providing a bridge with non-organic grass-fed claims

Don Davis, chair of AGA’s standards and certification committee, stated:

“We feel this meeting was an important first step to develop a clear and definable industry standard that will encourage producers to develop grassfed dairy programs and also to provide assurance to consumers when they see the term “grassfed” on a carton of milk or other dairy products.”

USDA Revoked Their Grass-Fed Standard in January 2016

In 2007, the USDA released voluntary standards for a grass-fed claim on meat. It suggested grass-fed animals eat nothing but grass and stored grasses, and have access to pasture during the growing season.

The standards were far from perfect; for instance, they allowed animals to be confined for certain periods of time and did not restrict the use of antibiotics and hormones in the animals.

Nonetheless, many viewed it as a step in the right direction that would provide increased transparency into how meat is raised and allow consumers to make more informed choices when buying their food.

In January 2016, however, the USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service announced that it withdrew the grass-fed standard, citing a lack of authority to define the claim. Those using the USDA’s grass-fed standard were given 30 days to convert it to a private grass-fed standard or develop a new grass-fed standard.

Is More Confusion Coming to Grass-Fed Meat Packaging?

Ferd Hoefner, policy director for the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC), is among those who believe the withdrawal will only add more confusion to food labeling. He stated in a NSAC press release:3

“Rather than bringing consistency and common sense to our food marketing system, USDA seems to be throwing in the towel … This is terrible public policy that will create a multitude of non-uniform labels, which will open the door to more confusion and subterfuge in the marketplace.

It is an affront to consumers, who have the right to know how their food is raised, and to the farmers whose innovation and hard work created the trusted grass fed label standard.

NSAC and our member organizations believe this reversal is a detriment to a fair and transparent food system and we urge the USDA to come up with an alternative solution quickly.”


Climate Change: The Ground-level Solution

Author: Ryan Zinn

To forget how to dig the earth and tend the soil is to forget ourselves.
—Mahatma Gandhi

World governments and organizations recently met in Paris to address climate change at a global level. And for the first time in the history of international climate talks, agriculture was put on the table as both a cause and solution to climate change.

As humans, we’ve sent people to the moon and cracked the human genome, but we are just beginning to understand the complexities of soil. For too long, we looked at soil as merely something to hold plants up, rather than a miraculous living membrane crucial for human and ecosystem health. Soils, when healthy, produce more food, retain more water and sequester significant quantities of carbon from the atmosphere. In fact, a third of the excess carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is from oxidized organic matter of depleted topsoil on mismanaged farms and overgrazed rangelands.

Industrial agriculture is a key driver in the generation of greenhouse gases. Synthetic fertilizers and pesticides kill soil life essential to building organic matter. Monocultures, land change, deforestation, waste and transportation are all part of a food system that generates significant emissions. Even if we stopped emitting greenhouse gases today, we would be stuck with a huge legacy load of greenhouse gases.

Fortunately regenerative organic agriculture practiced at large scale on our farms and rangelands can sequester huge amounts of excess carbon from the air and bring it back into healthy soil in the form of stable organic matter. This is how soil was formed in the first place and is one of the most significant steps we can take to reverse climate change, along with reforestation and not burning fossil fuels. The way we grow our food either degenerates soil and releases more carbon into the air, or regenerates soil that sequesters more carbon into the ground.

I’m excited to work for a company that works with farmers and partner organizations worldwide—in Ghana, Kenya, India, and Sri Lanka—to improve their livelihoods while simultaneously regenerating soil. Our team focuses on education and practices such as composting, cover cropping and mulching, that not only build up soil fertility and organic matter, increasing yields and profits for small farmers, but also aid local communities’ resiliency to heat waves and storms.

In India, the several hundred mint farmers we work with face serious challenges: a quickly growing population, soil degradation, erratic rainfall and rural poverty. Despite these challenges, Indian farmers are using local resources and know-how to return nutrients to their fields and regenerate their farms. These small steps, replicated over hundreds of farms, can act as the building block for a truly regenerative farming system.

Dr. Bronner’s also supports non-profit educational and activist organizations, including Regeneration International, Kiss The Ground, Center for Food Safety and Fair World Project, in their critical work to engage and educate farmers, consumers, companies and decision makers.

At a personal level, we can choose a “regenetarian” diet based on regenerative organic farming, and join organizations working on these issues. And by composting instead of throwing away food waste, we can improve our own soil’s health and ability to sequester carbon, and inspire friends and family to do the same.

Despite the dire reality, I have great hope. The resiliency of humans and the planet, after years of neglect, gives me faith. Facing down climate change is not only a major challenge, but a major opportunity to think differently about how we grow and eat food, how we define community, and what our hopes and aspirations are for the future. Let us not waste this opportunity.


Ryan Zinn is Organic & Fair Trade Coordinator at Dr. Bronner’s.