USDA Access to Pasture Rule for Organic Livestock Gets Thumbs Up from the National Organic Coalition

Oct 24, 2008

After a two-and-a-half-year wait, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) has released its draft rule clarifying access to pasture requirements for organic livestock. Today, that document is receiving praise from the members of the National Organic Coalition (NOC).

“This draft rule provides specific language needed for enforcement of one of the central tenets of organically produced livestock—that organic livestock spend a considerable part of their lives in their natural pasture habitat and receive a significant portion of their food from fresh, green, growing pasture,” said Kathie Arnold, NY State organic dairy farmer and President of the Northeast Organic Dairy Producers Alliance (NODPA), a NOC member.

The proposed rule requires that animals raised under organic standards have access to natural pastures. Consumer and farmer support for this is strong: The draft rule cites a 2006 Consumers Union survey of 1,485 U.S. adults which found that more than two thirds of all consumers and 75% of women believe that the national organic standards require that animals graze outdoors.

“This and other polls give a clear indication of consumer sentiment towards organic milk — they want and expect organic dairy cows to be raised on pasture before organic milk ends up on the grocery store shelf,” said Rebecca Spector, West Cost Director of the Center for Food Safety, a NOC member. “The new draft rule provides clarity regarding the absolute need for pasture for organic animals. Combined with proper enforcement, this proposed rule will allow consumers to be assured that organic livestock will spend the majority of their lives on pasture.”

In addition to consumer demand and animal welfare reasons, there are also strong economic and environmental reasons for required pasturing in organic standards. Pasture intake has been shown to be scientifically correlated with increased levels of healthful vitamins and essential fatty acids in milk and meat, and well-managed pasture reduces input and energy costs, contributing positively to carbon sequestration goals.

Access to pasture for organic ruminant animals (i.e. cows, sheep and goats) has been a requirement of the USDA organic regulation since its inception. In general, the accredited certifiers that enforce the USDA organic standards have been requiring organic livestock producers to meet this pasture standard since the inception of the program in 2002. However, it has become clear that a few organic dairies have been permitted to sell milk as “organic” even though their cows have not had adequate access to pasture. USDA’s National Organic Program has stated that the regulation has been too vague for them to enforce consistently and fairly so farmers, processors and consumers have asked the USDA to clarify the rule requiring quantifiable data.

Speaking on behalf of the NOC, Michael Sligh, Director of the Just Foods Program at the Rural Advancement Foundation, Inc. in North Carolina, said “NOC members voice their appreciation for the general direction of the rule, and the willingness of USDA to hold listening sessions. We encourage USDA to move ahead to a final rule and enforcement, after fully considering public comments. After a very long wait, we are thankful for USDA’s response to the organic community’s request for a strict pasture rule.”

As drafted, this proposed rule is very comprehensive and will require careful study and comments. NOC members will take a leadership role in developing constructive comments on specific issues raised by this rule.