We investigated organic milk in Ontario, tracking its journey from cow to carton, and found the product is no different than cheaper conventional milk. So why are we paying more?
Chantelle Lewis stops her shopping cart in the dairy aisle of a west-end grocery and pretzels around her giggling toddler to swipe up two frothy bottles of organic milk.
At $3.99 a litre, it can be double the price of a litre of regular milk. But like bread and diapers, it’s non-discretionary for Lewis and her growing family.
“I just believe in it,” she says of organic milk. “It’s better for animals, more humane. And nothing’s added to it.”
Lewis, 42, is one of more than an estimated 1.2 million Canadians who in the last six months have scooped up milk brands stamped with the country’s certified organic symbol. While fewer people are drinking milk overall these days, organic milk is holding steady in Canada’s $5-billion organic industry, with an estimated 2017 sales totaling $77 million.
Its popularity stems from consumers’ perception that organic milk is purer and more natural, not only because it’s made the old-fashioned way from happier cows on cleaner farms but because it is free from unhealthy additives, such as antibiotics and hormones.
We visited organic and conventional farms, tested milk in labs, and interviewed industry experts, dietitians, scientists and professors, and found that consumers’ belief is cultivated by mischaracterizations about conventional milk and a 100-year-old, mystical farming philosophy that denounces regular milk producers as too reliant on chemicals. The organic seal of approval is awarded to farmers for meeting bureaucratic standards that emphasize note-taking and gives points to farmers who try but fail to meet them.
While Canada’s organic dairy farmers do some things differently than their conventional colleagues – like sending their cows to pasture and using only chemicals that are considered natural – it’s not reflected in the end product.
“The milks are the same – they are identical with respect to the testing and quality standards. There’s no added hormones. No antibiotics,” says Graham Lloyd, of the Dairy Farmers of Ontario, the quasi-governmental organization that controls the organic and regular milk supply.
Aline Dimitri, the food regulator’s deputy chief of food safety, says, “When it comes to the safety of the product, there is no difference. People may feel that one is safer to consume than the other, but that is not supported by science.”
Organic farmer Thorsten Arnold wrestles with this disconnection between what the science says and what he knows about the farming system that makes the milk.
Arnold, a board member of The Organic Council of Ontario, a lobby group, acknowledges the milks may be similar and that the organic milk processing system “is very much like the conventional system.” He says that some of the benefits of organics are “hard to trace in food” and that “today’s analytical methods of science are inadequate” to do so. He says reducing organic agriculture to an end product is a mistake that misses the point of this “holistic system.”
Organic milk “brings health, animal welfare and environmental benefits,” says Ottawa-based Canada Organic Trade Association (COTA), another lobby group.
“Choosing organic milk means consumers are supporting the reduction of toxic synthetic pesticide use on pastures and cropland among many other benefits,” COTA executive director Tia Loftsgard said in a statement. “Choosing organic dairy products is not only about the final product, nor the farm it was made on. It is about supporting a system that is trying to do better across the supply chain.”