Taking a page from the organic playbook, the Center for Global Food Issues, a Churchville, Va.-based project of the Hudson Institute, has announced that it is developing an ?Earth Friendly, Farm Friendly? seal for dairy farmers and processors using high-production conventional agriculture practices.
Positioning these methods as ?leaving more room for nature,? CGFI will grant the seal to farmers with at least a percentage of their herds managed intensively. CGFI claims that intensive herd management results in fewer acres of land being farmed. While no one practice is mandatory, according to Alex Avery, director of research and education for CGFI, applicants will be evaluated on a menu-based point system that includes the use of synthetic bovine growth hormone (prohibited in organic agriculture) and other productivity supplements, milking cows three times daily instead of two, and conservation tillage technology, which relies on chemicals for weed control.
The Earth Friendly, Farm Friendly project is in its early stages, Avery said, with no timeline for the seal?s appearance on supermarket shelves. ?During the pilot phase, certification will be an affidavit-based system,? he said.
The initiative follows on the heels of CGFI?s aggressive ?Milk is Milk? campaign. Aimed at retailers and consumers, that project calls for boycotts and complaints against what CGFI?s Web site calls ?false and misleading label and marketing practices? by dairy companies with ?production-oriented claims relating to pesticides, antibiotics or hormones.?
Though ?Milk is Milk? and other efforts give CGFI a reputation of thinly veiled hostility to the organic industry, Avery denies that its seal is intended to compete with the organic label. ?This will be open to many farmers who aren?t organic. It?s a low-cost alternative to, perhaps, organic, where many of the practices increase production costs.?
?I think it really is a very strategic effort to confuse the public,? said Theresa Marquez, director of marketing and sales for Organic Valley, a LaFarge, Wis.-based national organic dairy cooperative. While core organic consumers may perceive that CGFI?s definition of ?Earth Friendly? is substantially different from that of organic, Marquez said, those newly entering the organic marketplace may not.
Kelly Shea, director of organic agriculture for Boulder, Colo.-based Horizon Organic, a subsidiary of Dallas-based Dean Foods, agrees. ?Earth Friendly, Farm Friendly is a very friendly certification title. When you hear it, it sounds very good. But when I look at this type of certification, I don?t know that this is at the request of consumers. What we do on the organic farm mirrors the concerns of consumers.?
?This is a high priority for the Organic Trade Association, to evaluate the impact that this will have on consumer opinion and to activate a campaign to ensure that the clear difference between [CGFI?s] approach and organic standards and principles are understood,? said Katherine DiMatteo, executive director of the Greenfield, Mass.-based organization. ?In my opinion, this is solely to undermine organic and other alternative efforts, to create confusion and continued uncertainty among consumers about what happens on the farm and what doesn?t.?
Organic advocates also counter the ?leaving more room for nature? argument. ?In organic farming practices, nature is incorporated onto the farm. You don?t have to choose between food production and nature,? Shea said.
?The definition of sustainability is a concern, and I think this label gets right to it,? said Liana Hoodes, organic policy coordinator for the nonprofit National Campaign for Sustainable Agriculture coalition. ?It?s easy to say that using less land to produce the same amount or more of milk saves land, but as with other pollution issues, we have to let the public know what happens when you concentrate a lot of animals on a small amount of land, not just for the land they?re on but downstream.?
Consumer advocates will scrutinize the label as well. ?We?re in the process of reviewing the label right now,? says Urvashi Rangan, Ph.D., project director for Yonkers, N.Y.-based Consumers Union?s eco-labeling project and Web site. ?As far as how meaningful the label is, we?ll look to see how much value it adds over conventional production. We?ll look for a verification system, consistency from product to product, transparency of the organization, does a conflict of interest exist, was there public input into the standards. These are things that consumers need to know.? An affidavit system alone is not an adequate and reliable verification system in Consumers Union?s evaluation scheme, Rangan adds.
Elaine Lipson is the author of The Organic Foods Sourcebook (McGraw-Hill Contemporary, 2001).
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