Is Organic Livestock Production More Humane?

Small herd of Dexter cattle on a pasture
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Many consumers purchase organic meat and dairy products with very specific animal welfare expectations in mind. Along the same lines, aspiring ​organic farmers note that one reason they're interested in organic versus conventional production is that organic is more humane.

In reality, organic livestock production as mandated by the National Organic Program (NOP) and animal welfare do not go hand-in-hand. It is something to seriously consider if you're interested in organic production for animal welfare reasons.

"Certified Organic" is an officially regulated label and certification. However, while organic certification does mandate many standards and practices for organic livestock producers, "humanely raised" isn't one of those standards.

Livestock Practices

Living conditions mandated by the USDA for organic livestock include access to pasture, access to shade and indoor shelter, an exercise area, and appropriateness based on the stage of life, climate, and environment.

Health and care for organic livestock is addressed by NOP and includes issues such as feeding, living conditions, types of medications allowed and other basic care practices.

Most significant of all the NOP health care rules is that a producer may not withhold treatment from an organic animal simply to keep that animal organic. Meaning, if a producer has tried organic medication and it fails, they must treat the animal with conventional medications. It is likely NOP's most animal welfare-minded rule because it says the health of an animal matters more than organic certification.

Welfare Standards

All of the organic livestock living condition rules, including the "access to pasture" rule, have some serious loopholes that work against animal welfare. The biggest loophole is likely that most organic livestock regulations are left up to the discretion of each individual producer. For example, although all organic livestock producers, must, without a doubt, feed organic meals to livestock and obtain their livestock from organic sources, other rules, such as when animals are allowed outside and how much space they actually get, are mostly set and self-regulated by individual producers.

If you take a look at the rules surrounding health care and general care of organic livestock, you'll also see that there are some major exceptions to the rules, and those exceptions are not fully or clearly defined. For example, NOP states that all organic livestock must have access to pasture, but exceptions include issues like poor weather, breeding time, shipping schedules, if access to pasture would damage the farm's soil, and more. All of these exceptions are self-defined, leaving the rules up for personal interpretation, which in the end is meant to benefit the producer, not the livestock.

Multiple animal welfare issues are not even covered by NOP, for example:

  • There are no rules to protect organic male chicks in egg-laying operations. They can be ground up, gassed, suffocated, thrown into garbage bags or disposed of in other unsavory ways.
  • Organic poultry raised for meat are allowed to be kept under continuous lighting and are allowed to be excessively fed.
  • Some organic dairy cows are allowed to be kept in confined and small spaces while others are allowed to be kept tied up.
  • Organic pigs may have their tails chopped off and their ears notched.
  • There are no rules in place protecting young organic livestock from being taken from their mother.
  • There are no rules to protect organic poultry from having their beaks clipped.
  • Debeaking, dehorning, and castration without painkillers is allowed in organic production.
  • There are no rules against rough handling or yelling at organic livestock.
  • Organic dairy cows and organic egg chickens will eventually be killed for meat in most cases.
  • There are no rules surrounding how an organic animal can be killed -- meaning a producer, organic or otherwise, may kill livestock pretty much any way they prefer, including head beating, boiling alive, shooting and more.

The above is just the tip of a very problematic iceberg. Very few animal rights or welfare issues are covered in the Final Rule. Additionally and most significantly, Doris Lin, points out, "In case it's not clear: 'Humane meat' is an oxymoron because an animal was killed to produce that meat." That's something to think about. Killing is not compassionate, kind, or done with consideration for whatever you're killing, so it's really not valid to call any animal product humane.

The Selling Point?

There are clear benefits to organic livestock production for humans, such as fewer chemicals, pesticides, antibiotics, hormones, and conservation of fossil fuels and water to name a few. However, in most cases, organic production is not much better for animal welfare than conventional production.

Keep in mind that most animal advocates don't accept that organic is humane in terms of animal treatment. Because of this, using humane treatment of livestock as a selling point for organic meat, dairy or eggs can seriously backfire on you, especially as consumers become savvy about food production methods and what labels really mean.

In general, organic livestock producers should focus on other organic selling points that do not involve animal rights, unless you're running a dairy or egg operation (not meat) and can clearly prove that your operation goes far above and beyond NOP livestock practice standards. Lastly, if you're an aspiring organic producer with animal welfare in mind, it's best to stick to organic crops, not livestock, at least until the NOP improves their organic livestock standards.