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Eco Etiquette: Is Organic Milk A Hoax?

Organic milk production, long considered one of the fastest growing segments of US agriculture, has begun to slow in the past year as Americans tighten their belts.
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Send all your eco-inquiries to Jennifer Grayson at Questions may be edited for length and clarity.

Friends came over for dinner recently, and the wife was asking us to explain to her husband why it's important to spend the extra money on organic milk for their children, who drink a lot of it. I tried to explain, but he's skeptical and thinks the whole thing is a hoax. Can you point me toward any legitimate studies to educate him?


First off, Miss Eco Etiquette applauds your decision to leave the bulk of your organic milk manifesto for after the dinner party. To paraphrase Michael Pollan, what we choose to eat is a political act, and we all know that politics don't usually make for polite dinner conversation. Your spirited debate could have gone from moo to boo faster than you can say Stonyfield Farm.

As a new parent, I admit I had a knee-jerk reaction to your question: Even if your friend is not convinced that organic milk (which is produced without antibiotics, synthetic hormones, and pesticides) is healthier, why wouldn't he take the position of better safe than sorry? Is it worth risking a child's health to shave a buck or two off the weekly grocery bill?

But then I caught a glimpse of this week's headlines: 11.5 million jobs now missing from our labor market. The national unemployment rate holding steady at an abysmal 9.6 percent. We're all looking for ways to scrimp and save, especially when it comes to feeding voracious children who are eating us out of house and home.

I can relate. My little one may only be 6 weeks old as of this writing, but for us, the budget crunch began in utero: Even I had to reevaluate my commitment to local and organic once I realized my pregnancy craving for Redwood Hill Farm organic goat yogurt was costing me upwards of 20 bucks a week. Those giant, cheap tubs of the non-organic (but hormone-free) cow's milk variety at my local big-name grocery chain were just too darn tempting. I occasionally succumbed.

I'm evidently not the only one questioning whether organic is really worth it: Organic milk production, long considered one of the fastest growing segments of US agriculture, has begun to slow in the past year as Americans tighten their belts.

But just as we need to invest in clean energy to help create the green jobs of the future, we also need to invest in our children's health by ensuring that what goes in their mouths won't harm their delicate, developing systems.

Moove over conventional! Here's why organic milk is the best choice for your family:

Organic milk is produced without pesticides. Testing by the USDA's Pesticide Data Program found industrial chemicals in nearly all of the conventional milk it examined. Among the most alarming: DDE, a breakdown of the now-banned toxic insecticide DDT, was discovered in 96 percent of the samples. Ninety-nine percent contained diphenylamine (DPA), a chemical used in plastic and rubber manufacturing, and 18 percent contained the endocrine disruptor endosulfan, which EPA moved to ban this year.

Organic milk is produced without added hormones. You wouldn't give human growth hormone to your healthy 5-year-old, so why would you expose her to milk that's filled with bovine growth hormone (linked to an alarming rise in calf deformity)? While the US continues to allow the injection of the genetically engineered hormone rBGH (or rBST) into lactating cows to increase milk production, the potential risks are enough of a concern that the European Union, Canada, Japan, and Australia have all banned its use.

Organic milk is produced without antibiotics. The antibiotics routinely given to dairy cattle to discourage mastitis may never make it into your milk (conventional milk is tested for antibiotic residues), but they could lead to you catching a life-threatening disease later in life. Sound implausible? The FDA has called the overuse of antibiotics in food animals "a serious public health threat," linking it to the emergence of super-scary superbugs like MRSA.

Organic milk is healthier. A study by Newcastle University found that organic dairy cows in the UK produce milk that is higher in vitamins, antioxidants, and "good" fats -- including conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), which has been linked to lower rates of heart disease. The healthier milk is the result of cows grazing on fresh grass; since USDA recently passed strict regulations requiring the pasturing of organic dairy cows, it stands to reason that American organic milk offers the same increased nutritional benefit.

Hope your friend finds this information udderly convincing!

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