By New Scientist article The next crop-related crisis may be brewing in America.
The USDA announced on Wednesday that it would require all farmers to use organic poultry in their fields by 2020.
But this move is not just a response to the massive growth of organic farming in recent years, but a response as well to an increasing number of animal welfare issues and fears of antibiotic resistance.
“There is a growing movement of organic farmers and consumers to make an organic chicken decision, and we are pleased to be taking the first steps in this direction,” said Joanne Wessel, the USDA’s deputy director of poultry science.
Wessel was speaking at a press conference announcing the new requirement, which comes after several major initiatives that aim to shift the country towards an organic food supply.
While organic is the predominant chicken food source in the US, some states, such as Texas, are trying to introduce other food options, such a grass-fed beef, soy-free or grass-finished beef.
While Wessel and other officials are confident that the new regulation will have an impact, there are still a number of hurdles to overcome before the shift takes place.
For starters, many states are not allowed to set their own standards, so it will be difficult to predict how well it will work in practice.
Secondly, the food system in the United States has been largely shaped by the agricultural sector.
“In the past, the US was a predominantly agrarian society, and a lot of these trends in organic production have largely been the result of the consolidation of agrarrios supply chains,” Wessel said.
“Now, that is changing.”
A new survey of organic consumers and farmers, commissioned by the American Society of Organic Farmers, found that the majority of organic chicken consumers and growers in the country are now using more organic production than they did two decades ago.
“The majority of consumers have seen significant improvements in their health and well-being from organic food,” said Andrew Janssens, president of the American Organic Consumers Association.
“We’re seeing huge shifts in the consumer demand for organic foods, and that’s driven by consumers, organic food producers, and farmers.”
And while the USDA says that all farmers are required to use “organic poultry”, that doesn’t mean they can’t still choose to use other chicken ingredients such as grass, corn or soy.
“Many of the poultry products that are available today, especially those coming from organic producers, have not been certified organic by the USDA,” said Dr Paul C. Pfeifer, a USDA microbiologist.
“They’re not necessarily organic chicken.”
He explained that organic certification involves a number more tests, including a thorough analysis of the feed to determine which of the various ingredients in a given product was the result “of an organic process”.
“It’s really the difference between a chicken with a label and a chicken without a label,” he said.
Pending certification, Pfeig said, organic chicken can be found at grocery stores and even online.
“You’ll see organic chicken in most grocery stores in the next year or so,” he told New Scientist.
But some experts have raised concerns that this change could have negative impacts on the environment and on the wellbeing of animals.
“A lot of people don’t think about the food systems of the United State,” said John B. Anderson, a professor of food policy at Tufts University.
“But what happens when you have a large number of people moving from organic to conventional production?
That’s the question we want to ask.”
Anderson said that organic chickens are “one of the most efficient feed sources” in the world.
But he noted that it’s not just about the animal.
“If you’re going to go organic, you’re really going to have to get out of the way of the environmental issues that arise from it,” he added.
But Pfeiffer said that there are already some signs that organic chicken could have an adverse effect on the ecosystem.
“Organic chicken is not going to help us reduce antibiotic resistance in animals, so the environmental problems that arise will not be alleviated by organic chicken,” he explained.
“So we’re going for more sustainable and more nutritious poultry products.”
The new requirements, which will come into effect on July 1, are designed to help farmers adapt to changing markets and changing supply chains.
But the government says that its goal is to make organic chicken a “practical choice” for farmers.
And it is working to make that a “fair” choice for consumers, which means it is still unlikely that organic poultry will become the majority chicken food choice in the USA.
But as organic food becomes more popular, some people are concerned that it will make a bigger impact on the planet than it has in the past.