rBST milk vs. organic milk

I was asked to weigh-in on a recent OP-ED piece that appeared in the New York Times about rBST milk (aka: bST, bGH,rbGH, recombinant bovine growth hormone.) The question:

I just found this article in today’s NY Times and now I’m wondering why I’ve been paying almost $6/gallon for organic milk when it sounds like there is very little nutritional difference and the environmental impact is actually lower with non-organic milk. I’m wondering what the other mommies or greener experts (Alegre) think about this issue.

A brief web search yielded lots of praise for organic, but mostly from those with a vested interest in profits. Also attached is an MSNBC article saying that organic milk is higher in Omega 3 fatty acids – but can’t we just get that from other sources like eggs? – and that milk from non-organic cows treated with antibiotics isn’t used until the milk tests free.

My response:
The New York Times OP-ED piece is not about organic milk vs. non-organic milk directly…it’s more about rBST milk vs. non-rBST milk (with non-rBST tending to get lumped together with the term organic the way terms like free-range and all-natural do.)

This is a very complicated issue, hopefully I can shed some light on the many different parts of it. Before I do that however, I do want to point out one thing. We’ve all written papers in school and we all know that when you do this you INCLUDE the information that supports your argument and you LEAVE OUT the evidence that contradicts it. Anytime you read anything written by someone you need to keep this in mind and ultimately make the decision for yourself.

First issue: ORGANIC vs. NON-ORGANIC
1. It has long been known that NUTRITIONALLY the difference between organic foods and non-organic foods is not very much. Meaning, you get the same benefits of calories, vitamins and minerals from organic vs. non-organic. HOWEVER, these same articles also say that you should be sure to peel the skin on all non-organic produce because that’s where the majority of the pesticides, etc. will get trapped and it fails to mention the loss of fiber from doing this. ALSO, there are some foods that can’t be peeled which are very sensitive to chemicals (such as blueberries) which most agree should always be bought organically. I personally always opt for organic local produce. I try not to buy any produce that doesn’t come from CA because my MAIN concern environmentally right now is minimizing my carbon footprint and ensuring that your food is local is a great way to do that (because less gas is used in getting it to you.)

2. Buying organic food isn’t just about making sure that humans receive nutritionally the correct stuff, it’s also about protecting our land and perhaps even more importantly our WATERWAYS and WATER SUPPLIES. Pesticides and fertilizers always always always end up in our water, and this is something you definitely want to minimize. No one wants to swim in (or drink, although with all the treatment that happens to our ground water, drinking it probably isn’t that likely, however, you still want to minimize your exposure to this) pesticide/fertilized water.

3. Your point about organic milk having higher Omega 3 fatty acids is very interesting. I have read some other articles that say there ARE some important nutritional differences between free-range animal products and non-free range (free range is different from organic but often lumped together). Basically, the cholesterol make-up of these products is different. Beef that comes from free-range animals actually has more good cholesterol than bad (vs. the other way around for traditionally raised beef.) They hypothesize that it’s because the animals aren’t raised in a stressful environment (makes sense to me!)

Bottom line: perhaps there are OTHER benefits (not as direct as nutritional or cost, although nutritional reasons might exist as well given point number 3) to buying organic, non-rBST milk

Second issue: rBST
The author of the article below makes very valid points. Mainly that rBST has been tested very extensively and by using it to boost cow milk production we can minimize environmental impact in other places too (water, grain, etc.)

First of all I want to point out one thing: food prices are going to be on the rise everywhere. Why? This is because of the increase of interest in corn for ethanol and the fact that farmers are going to sell their corn to the highest bidder and if it is the ethanol people, then it is going there. Also, farmer’s are planting less of other crops (soy and barley for instance) in order to make room for EVEN MORE CORN for ethanol. The corn ethanol debate is a whole other bag of worms, but suffice it to say, I’m not impressed by corn ethanol as it doesn’t reduce carbon emissions enough and it is only an affordable gas alternative because of all the subsidies it gets from our government…but I digress. (btw…there are many other plants that can be made into fuel more efficiently than corn…hemp, switchgrass, sugar beets and sugar cane to name a few…haven’t reviewed all the carbon footprint information regarding those plants, but why aren’t we pursuing those?…)

Basically, food manufacturers everywhere are going to be looking for ways to get more out of the limited corn supply, and the article below smells STRONGLY of this concern. All food manufacturers will be affected by the high price of corn either directly (it’ll be more expensive…think of all the things flavored with high fructose corn syrup) or indirectly (their own crop is harder to find…beer manufacturers are already having this problem as corn is replacing barley as an attractive crop for farmers which pushes up barley prices because it becomes more scarce.)

My bottom line thoughts: I was a anthropology major in undergrad, and a lot of my thinking about how I live has been impacted by my biological anthropology classes. The bottom line is that evolution is a very intricate process of environment influencing biological development. We evolved the way we did as humans because of the food that was available to us while we were evolving. All of the changes to our food supply that have taken place in the last 50-100 years…we haven’t evolved to deal with them yet and we probably won’t for many thousands of years. Right now we are living in bodies that evolved to eat clean, pure foods but instead we are eating foods that are highly processed. Our teeth rot because sugar is too strong, we are obese because our food has so much more fat in it, we have hypertension because our food has too much salt in it, etc. etc. etc.

My feeling is that even though rBST is naturally occurring in cows, it occurs in a specific amount for the benefit of the cow and the milk it produces. There is a reason (we might not understand yet) that the cows don’t produce more rBST. Just like injecting hormones in ourselves can have unintended consequences, the same is true for animals. When in doubt, I believe that simpler and as close to nature is possible, and for that reason, I look for products without rBST.

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