By Kate Jackman-Atkinson, Neepawa Banner & Press
Agricultural topics don’t often make front page news in Canada’s biggest city, especially when it’s not bad news. But that wasn’t the case this week, when the Toronto Star published an investigative piece looking at organic and conventional milk in Canada. The feature ran under a special header and could be found at the top of their website for most of the week.
Milked, by Michele Henry, followed milk from farm to consumer. It was an extensive piece of journalism, involving farm visits, store purchases and lab analysis. The work began last winter and milk tested was purchased in February. In writing the story, Henry visited multiple conventional and organic dairy farms to talk to producers about their operations.
Unlike Toronto’s other major paper, the Globe and Mail, the Star isn’t considered and doesn’t pretend to be the country’s newspaper of record. It caters to the greater Toronto area, where container gardening is about the extent of most residents’ “rural” experience. That’s why the piece was so important.
The overwhelming conclusion of the story was that under the microscope, organic milk is no better and conventional milk no worse. Both contained the same levels of vitamins and minerals, only one costs much more. Talking to farmers, regulators and industry groups, the biggest measurable difference between the two was the paperwork and reporting requirements of organic producers.
A large portion of the story focused on the industry’s extremely stringent regulations and frequent testing. It also highlighted consumers’ lack of knowledge. Henry talked to customers buying milk and most buying organic said they chose it because they wanted a product free of antibiotics and added hormones. The problem is that you don’t have to buy organic to get these benefits; injecting dairy cows with hormones to increase milk production is illegal in Canada and by law, all milk in Canada must be free of antibiotics. The industry isn’t just paying lip service to the rules; each tanker-load of milk is subject to a battery of tests, one of which is for the presence of antibiotics. If a trace is detected, the whole load is dumped and the offending source farm must pay fines, as well as paying for the entire value of the milk that was discarded.
In addition to medications, many consumers buy organic because they feel it creates a happier environment for the cattle. Stressed cattle produce poorer quality milk and to that end, each load of conventional and organic milk is also tested for Somatic cell count (SCC), a measure of white blood cells which indicates stress in the animal. If a farm produces milk with a high SCC, they are fined, as this milk is not only of a poorer quality, but spoils more quickly. It’s in all dairy farmers’ interest to treat their cattle well.
The consumer can’t be faulted for not knowing what they don’t know; fewer and fewer Canadians have first-hand experience of farm life. The 1861 Census recorded 3.2 million Canadian residents, 84 percent of whom lived in rural areas. The numbers have been steadily declining, the 2016 Census of Agriculture recorded 193,492 agricultural operations and 271,935 farm operators. Only 0.75 percent of Canadians actively farmed in 2016 and the increasing fragmentation and specialization of the industry overall mean that even farmers may not know much about other farm sectors.
Stories like this, aimed at the general public, are vital. They help educate consumers who, more than ever, are further removed from the food they eat and more concerned about what they are eating. This situation has opened the door for marketing, quasi-science and fear tactics, not facts, to inform Canadians’ food choices. Farmers need to get their stories out there, the stakes are far too high to not.