A Vermont organic dairy farmer recently wrote an op-ed in which he defended conventional (non-organic) dairy farmers.
Vermonter Jacques Couture wrote in the Burlington Free Press that he was “a little perplexed” by the “current demand by some vocal Vermonters” that “all dairy farmers” convert to organic. There’s room for both organic and non-organic, he wrote.
Couture didn’t specifically mention the ongoing consumer campaign asking Ben & Jerry’s to source 100% organic dairy. Nor did he name the nonprofits—Regeneration Vermont and the Organic Consumers Association—behind the campaign.
Did Ben & Jerry’s put Couture up to writing the op-ed? Is the Unilever-owned ice cream maker paving the way for a future announcement that its conventional dairy suppliers will soon start using better farming practices (but not go organic)?
We can only speculate.
But we don’t have to speculate about this: Couture’s opinion piece was missing more than just the details behind the story. It missed the point. Which is this: Conventional dairy, which relies on Monsanto’s Roundup Ready GMO crops, is poisoning Vermont’s water, degrading Vermont’s soil and contributing to global warming.
And yes, the glyphosate we found in Ben & Jerry’s ice cream is a health problem.
One irrelevant—and some dubious—claims
Couture’s defense of Vermont’s conventional dairy farmers included the claim that non-organic dairy farmers work just as hard, and are just dedicated to their communities, as organic farmers.
We take no issue with that.
But we do take issue with Couture's claim that all Vermont conventional milk is free of antibiotics, and that none of Vermont dairy farmers use the bovine growth hormone (rBST, or rGBH), which is prohibited in organic. Informed sources in Vermont tell a different story, based on their in-depth research into antibiotic use in Vermont dairies
That said, the above arguments are only marginally related to our demand that Ben & Jerry’s go organic. Ben & Jerry’s knows that, even if Couture doesn’t.
Our Ben & Jerry's campaign focuses on the use of pesticides and chemical fertilizers, and the many disastrous consequences associated with those practices. On that issue, we are totally at odds with Couture.
The facts speak—conventionl dairies pollute Vermont's waterways
Couture writes that conventional dairy farms use pesticides “judiciously and work to avoid impacting local water sources and nearby lands.” He also claims that they use “the safest ones.”
That’s not the picture Regeneration Vermont paints in its latest report, “A Failure to Regulate: Big Dairy & Water Pollution in Vermont.” The report says that Lake Champlain is one of more than 100 other bodies of water in Vermont that are classified as “impaired:”
And, in many cases, “impaired” means filled with the green slime that is cyanobacteria, smelling so badly that summer camps have become uninhabitable, and beaches are posted with signs that warn, “no swimming.”
According to the EPA, more than 138,900 acres (80 percent) of the Vermont portion of Lake Champlain weren’t even swimmable during the summers of 2015 and 2016.
Here are a few more not-so-fun facts from the Regeneration Vermont report:
• Public and private sources estimate that from 40 percent to 79 percent of the phosphorous and nitrogen pollution in Vermont’s waterways comes from dairy farms. And, almost all the pesticide pollution comes from these dairies.
• In 2016, the EPA classified 15 of Vermont’s lakes and 86 of the state’s rivers and streams as “impaired.”
• According to Julie Moore of Vermont’s Agency of Natural Resources (ANR), roughly half—48.5 percent—of the pollution in Lake Champlain comes from agricultural sources.
As for using “safe” pesticides? Regeneration Vermont analyzed the state’s pesticide data. Here’s what Vermont farmers used on corn (most of which was used to feed dairy cows), between 1999-2013:
• 1,432,650 pounds of the weedkiller metolachlor, an endocrine disruptor known to cause cancer and birth defects.
• 1,037,575 pounds of the weedkiller atrazine, banned in Europe because it’s carcinogenic, causes birth defects, is an endocrine disruptor and pollutes drinking water.
• 224,628 pounds of simazine, also banned in Europe, for the same reasons listed above.
Pesticides—‘one of the greatest public health challenges’
We need to get pesticides out of our food system—that’s not just our opinion, it’s the opinion of a growing number of scientists. (And no, we don’t need pesticides to “scale to meet the planet’s needs,” as Couture suggests).
A recent report by the International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems (IPES-Food) says that exposure to harmful chemicals in existing food systems poses “one of the greatest challenges for public health, as the risks of long-term exposure to pesticides clearly extend beyond the farm.”
Reporting on the IPES-Food story, the Ecologist noted the “damning assessment” by a key scientific advisor to the UK Government on the failure of global regulatory agencies to acknowledge the “impacts of dosing whole landscapes" with pesticides.
But “dosing whole landscapes” is exactly what Vermont farmers, who spray a toxic cocktail of pesticides on the more than 90,000 acres of GMO crops in their state, are doing.
It’s great (not to mention clever marketing) for Ben & Jerry’s to announce plans to start making “glyphosate-free” ice cream. (Though wouldn’t consumers who’ve been on the receiving end of Ben & Jerry’s “good guy” marketing all these years have already assumed as much)?
But getting glyphosate out of its ice cream does little to get glyphosate (and atrazine and metolachlor) out of Vermont’s waterways. Or its soils. To do that, Ben & Jerry’s needs to go organic—and not just 6 percent.
‘Farmers know that’
In his defense of conventional dairy farmers, Couture writes that when “it comes to the land, you won’t find an organic or conventional dairy farmer who doesn’t focus on soil health and production.”
We beg to differ. Here’s how the United Nations Food & Agriculture Organization (FAO) defines soil health:
Soil health is the capacity of soil to function as a living system, with ecosystem and land use boundaries, to sustain plant and animal productivity, maintain or enhance water and air quality, and promote plant and animal health. Healthy soils maintain a diverse community of soil organisms that help to control plant disease, insect and weed pests, form beneficial symbiotic associations with plant roots; recycle essential plant nutrients; improve soil structure with positive repercussions for soil water and nutrient holding capacity, and ultimately improve crop production (FAO, 2008).
By using chemical fertilizers and pesticides, Vermont’s conventional dairy farmers are degrading soil health—not contributing to it.
Sure, as Couture writes, some of Vermont’s conventional farmers are (selectively) adopting regenerative agricultural practices like no-till and cover crops. But Couture’s claim—that “the end goals, conventional or organic, are very similar: healthy, content animals to produce the best milk while safeguarding the land”—doesn’t hold water any better than eroded, degraded soils do.
Unless Vermont farmers ditch the chemicals, they can’t claim to be “focusing on soil health.” And that’s a problem. Because healthy soil, not conventional agriculture, is what’s needed to feed a growing global population. And as historians have long noted, the nation that destroys its soil, destroys itself.
In a recent news report revealing that the UK is 30-40 years away from “eradication of soil fertility,” UK Environment Secretary Michael Gove warned:
“If you have heavy machines churning the soil and impacting it, if you drench it in chemicals that improve yields but in the long term undercut the future fertility of that soil [emphasis ours], you can increase yields year on year but ultimately you really are cutting the ground away from beneath your own feet. Farmers know that.”
The time is now, no excuses
What’s keeping Ben & Jerry’s, the company that feigns deep concern for environmental and social progress, from transitioning to organic?
Couture would have us believe that Vermont dairy farmers can’t go organic because it’s “impractical.”
That’s no excuse, say the authors of the IPES-Food study:
The report points out that the complexity of health impacts in food systems is real and challenging, but "cannot be an excuse for inaction," and that a truly healthy food system will take as its starting point a preventative, precautionary approach, triggering a shift from a system that results in harm to a system that is based on prevention and health promotion.
The Regeneration Vermont team says the state has the technical expertise to help Vermont dairy farmers convert. They point out that those farmers who have already converted are making a living, without polluting the land or waterways.
In its “Failure to Regulate” report, the nonprofit says many of the state’s conventional farmers who are on the verge of bankruptcy would survive if they could convert to organic. All they need are buyers:
Big dairy buyers like Ben & Jerry’s, Cabot Creamery, or Green Mountain Greek Yogurt could, with a decision to buy organic ingredients, almost immediately turn around the problems of Vermont’s dairy economy, poor working conditions on farms, polluted waterways, and unhealthy cows.
We’ve got a health crisis, a soil crisis, a water crisis, a worsening global hunger crisis and a climate crisis—not just in Vermont, but on a global scale. Business-as-usual industrial factory farming is a big part of the problem.
Organic, regenerative farming is the solution.
Until Ben & Jerry’s transitions to 100% organic, no amount of touchy-feely public relations—including cutesy new flavors like “One Sweet World”—will fool conscious consumers, much less fix the world.
That’s the case we need to be making.
Katherine Paul is associate director of the Organic Consumers Association.