Organic standards and animal welfare

Over on Animal Science Review, Austin J. Bouck just posted his paper, Do organic animal operations encourage management decisions that negatively impact animal welfare? Personally, I do tend to buy organic dairy products when I can in hopes that I’m contributing to improved animal welfare, even though deep in my heart I suspect I’m doing no such thing. In veterinary school, classmates told me they avoided buying organic because of things they had seen on organic farms. I’ve argued before that the best way to ensure the welfare of the animals whose products you consume is to make your purchases at a local farmer’s market, but of course not everyone has access to those. So this question of whether organic is good for animal welfare or not is a pressing one.

Austin starts out with a discussion of terminology. The word “organic” has a legal meaning, but many producers also use terms like “natural” and “free-range,” which don’t. What do these terms mean to producers and what do they mean to consumers? I have heard veterinarians dismiss these terms as meaningless, but Austin describes a tendency among organic producers to view their ecocentric model of farm management as a way of managing their animals “naturally.” In an ecocentric model, overall sustainability of the farm and interactions with the environment take priority over individual health.

If that’s the case, what are the consequences to individual health of prioritizing the environment over the individual? Austin uses as his examples dairy cows, focusing on the use of antibiotics to treat infected udders, and chickens, focusing on the use of medication for parasite infection. In both cases, he describes the strong incentives for organic farmers to withhold treatment for disease, as once an animal has been treated with an antibiotic or antiparasitic, its products (milk, meat, or eggs) can no longer be considered organic. Austin explores alternative treatments and concludes that none are effective. He notes that in Europe, use of antibiotics and antiparasitics to treat clinical disease is legal in organic production; only preventive use is banned. He advocates a change in U.S. regulations to imitate the European model, on the reasonable theory that if incentive to withhold treatment is removed, then more sick animals will be treated.

I agree! I would have been very interested to hear some statistics about how many animals go untreated on organic farms, or how far illness on these farms might be allowed to progress before animals are treated, compared farms using conventional methods. Austin doesn’t say, and I think this is because no one really knows. It would be an interesting line of research, and possibly a necessary one if we want to get the American public fired up to support change in the current regulations. If a video of a sick cow being moved by a forklift was invigorating to the animal welfare community, maybe some videos of untreated sick animals on organic farms would be as well.

Check out the paper. It’s an interesting read.