US Organic is Cruel and Inhumane for Livestock

The above statement will shock many and be denied by others. The US standards for organic production of livestock are cruel and inhumane. They are a travesty of what organic should be.

In an ideal world buying organic would mean the products you purchase are produced in a fair manner, provide a decent living for the farmer and improve the fertility and long term sustainability of the farm land. There should be no bad environmental effects caused by the farm’s management practices and it should be a thriving, long term sustainable food producer for many generations to come.

Many people think that organic means no sprays, no chemicals and no treatments for the problems that beset agriculture. However, organic does in fact allow and use many chemicals. Some of them are actually more toxic and lethal than their non-organic counterparts. The difference is that organic treatments are natural and not synthetic. All of agriculture defines the time between when a treatment can be given to a crop and when it is safe for humans to eat or otherwise contact that crop. Organic pesticides can have longer withdrawal times for both handling and harvest and for entry than non-organic counterparts.

Domestic animals should be free to express natural behaviors, protected from disease, parasites, predators and illness, eat natural foods appropriate for their species and sheltered for their well being. All these requirements should be adjusted to reflect the vast differences in farms, soils, breeds and species and should reflect the diversity that is the birthright of many thousands of years of agriculture.

In many ways the organic vegetable and fruit growers are working towards this goal but the US standards for livestock are woefully lacking in common sense and good animal husbandry.

Under US organic rules no slaughter livestock can be given any sort of paraciticide at all. On the surface this sounds reasonable – after all with proper management there should be no parasites in your stock right?
WRONG! While there is much in livestock management that can be done to minimize common parasite infestation of your stock there is no way to prevent it completely. All livestock is eventually slaughter stock, a responsible farmer will make certain that the animals are healthy AND free of medications before they go to the stock yard. Parasite infestation causes not only significant harm to the individual animal and can cause death but even animals that do not die fail to thrive. This affects not only the quality of the wool, meat and milk from infested stock but causes unnecessary discomfort, shortens their lifespan and can cause significant loss of young. Increased costs to raise replacements is a hidden but significant cost in a flock that is heavily parasitized.

Parasites in sheep can be broadly classed into several main groups.

There are intestinal worms – round worms and tapeworms that can infest stock. Flukes can infest the liver, lung worms can infest the bronchial passages and meningeal worms can infest the nervous system. External parasites include ticks that can carry several different virus diseases, sheep keds and lice in two varieties. And there are the hybrid parasites such as the bot fly which lays eggs in the sheep’s nose; the grubs eat blood from the nasal passages and will cause internal damage if they get into the stomach. Some bot flies are viable in humans and other animals. Warble flies are another hybrid style of parasite.

There are many techniques the farmer can do to reduce intestinal worm infestation in their stock. Proper grazing management combined with a large enough area to rest pastures, a hard freeze cycle and using other species such as chickens, geese or cattle can help break the life cycle of intestinal parasites. If the land can be grazed by both cattle and sheep a farmer can use the cattle to sweep the pastures of the primary sheep parasites and vice versa. The animals are still infested, it just will reduce the losses caused by the parasites. Proper grazing management can make a huge difference in the intestinal worm burden of a flock.

One technique, FAMANCHA, is used to detect individual animals that are infested with the barber pole worm. While touted as the solution to parasite problems this only works with one, specific species. However, if you are in an area that has barber pole worm, using FAMANCHA can help you reduce the amount and number of times you must deworm the flock and target the drug to only those animals that need it. Knowing the animals are infested is useless unless something is done to kill the parasites without killing the animal.

Breeding for sheep that are somewhat resistant to parasites can and does work, for the farm where the animals are selected. However, significant research in Australia and New Zealand indicates that animals bred to be resistant to parasites on one farm may not be resistant to the ones found on another farm so while helpful for the farmer in reducing their individual use of dewormers it is not a total solution.

All of these techniques can and should be used by all sustainable farmers to mitigate the problems caused by intestinal worms.

Nothing in an individual farmers’ grazing management can do anything about the parasites carried by the wild animals and transmitted to the domestic stock.

The meningeal worm is commonly carried by deer. Sheep are a dead end host when infected because unlike deer they can die from the infestation. Nose bots are a serious problem in some areas and because they are the larval form of a fly the individual farmer cannot control it. We personally have lost sheep who died from nose bot infestation. Liver flukes are another parasite carried by deer and elk.

There is very little that farm management can do to curtail external parasites.. Shearing at the proper time and providing clean bedding is about the limit of management that can be used to prevent infestation by lice, keds and ticks. Fortunately, such infestations tend to be rather rare. In our own flock in the last 8 years we have only had to use an insecticide on our sheep twice. In modern agriculture the old sheep dips have been replaced with much smaller doses of targeted insecticides. Most are based on pyrethins, a natural insecticide in chrysanthemum plants but for consistency and safety a synthetic version is used. Natural pyrethins can vary in lethality and that makes deciding on the dose of a natural pyrethin very difficult. You must use enough to kill the parasite but not enough to kill the animal. Synthetic pyrethins are consistent in drug effect and can be administered more safely.

Given that all domestic stock will become infested with parasites it is critical that organic standards provide a safe effective way to deal with these pests when management is not effective or when there is nothing the management can do, such as pests carried by wild animals. Sadly there is no safe and effective paraciticide that is also US organic approved. While many things have been tried, under rigorous on-farm testing in the real world all of them have either proved ineffective, worse than doing nothing or unsafe and resulting in deaths of the treated stock. And even the most promoted potential remedies do not handle infestations by flying pests or flukes.

This significant problem is well recognized by the organic standards in other countries. Under the international IFOAM standards, or the EU standards proper control of parasites is deemed an animal welfare issue and is mandated by the standards. Treatment using approved paraciticides is allowed when a defined need is documented, under the direct knowledge and control of a licensed veterinarian and when at least double the slaughter withdrawal time for the drug used is adhered to. Additional regulations concerning prevention of any environmental contamination are also required. This is a common sense approach and has resulted in the widespread adoption of organic standards by many more diversified farms who would not consider it unless parasites could be controlled.

In US organic standards when, for example, an apple grower is facing a parasite problem like codling moths there are several safe, effective ways to deal with it. Initially dormant oils are sprayed on the trees to reduce the hatching rate of the over wintering eggs. Later pheromone lures are used as mating disrupters to prevent the moths from finding mates. When the inevitable infestation does occur there are several safe and effective chemical sprays that can be used to kill the codling moth grubs. Similar options exist for the control and elimination of pests for other vegetable and fruit crops.

The livestock producer is denied any way to safely and effectively treat his or her animals.

In the past there were few if any safe and effective paraciticides.

This resulted in the use of unsafe ones, such as straight nicotine and also in the needless deaths of many animals. Some medieval records indicate that it was not uncommon to lose up to 50% of the sheep in a flock in a year due primarily to the worms they contracted. Such a waste of animals is abhorrent to anyone who really cares for them. Even the best current US organic farms seem to accept a 10-15% death loss of lambs as normal yet a well managed ‘non-organic’ flock standard is less than 5% deaths including stillbirths and accidents and no deaths to parasites.

The second big issue is vaccinations. The US standard says vaccinations are allowed in one section. But in another section it says that nothing can be given that is not on the approved substances lists and no vaccines are on the list. This has led to differences in how certifying agencies interpret the rules. In some locales any vaccination to prevent disease is allowed. Others will allow vaccines but only if the vaccine is labeled for the species to which it is given and yet others say that until vaccines are individually listed no vaccine will be allowed.

This is cruel. In our area there are many sheep diseases that are in the soil. They can stay in the soil for decades and are carried by wild animals. Before we used a vaccine that protected against these diseases we would lose lambs. They are horrible clostridial infections, a group of organisms related to tetanus and once the animal gets sick there is almost no possibility of saving it. Their deaths are prolonged and terribly painful. To deny the farmer the option of preventing these diseases is to condemn animals to unnecessary and cruel deaths.

It is for these reasons that I consider that the current US organic standards to be cruel and inhumane and is why we will not become certified organic until the standards reflect the high level of care we demand for our special sheep.

If we were in Wales or in Europe, or Australia or New Zealand we could in fact be easily qualified as organic as their standards do recognize the critical animal welfare issues parasite infestation and preventable disease represent and have provided a way for that to be treated effectively, humanely and safely.