Something in the middle

Interesting piece in the NYTimes, shining a light on what some believe to be a soon to come crackdown on antibiotic usage in livestock farming operations. Though the new guidelines would not eliminate the use of antibiotics entirely - “The guidelines, which are voluntary and will not have the binding force of regulations, would end farm uses of the drugs simply to promote faster animal growth and call for tighter oversight by veterinarians.” if this does play out as expected, it could possibly clear the path for an overall ban, something that’s already taken place in Europe.

The bigger question here isn’t whether or not to eliminate antibiotic and growth hormone usage in livestock farming operations. WhiteWave is in complete support of this. In fact, we already do that. The question is how can an entire industry eliminate the use of antibiotics and growth hormones in livestock without seriously crippling itself? For all the flaws associated with the current infrastructure around food production, it’s still a really efficient and profitable system — a system that’s been developed over the course of a few decades. Changing it is going to be hard.

Aside from the antibiotic argument, some believe that large-scale operations should be eliminated all together. That’s just not possible if we want to feed everyone. However, large-scale operations do need to find ways to adopt small scale principles if  the current system is to become safer and more sustainable.

Our Horizon brand offers a good example of the possibilities. We partner with more than 500 farmers across the country who provide more than 90 percent of our milk, but we also own two of our own farms, one of which spans about 9,000 acres and milks nearly 2,400 cows a day. It’s big. And because we’re connected to a larger organization (Dean Foods), we have the ability to heavily invest in technologies and processes that have helped the farm operate efficiently and organically, on a large scale.

For example the dairy is able to grow more than 70 percent of the feed the cows eat, and with the help of Holistic Management International, has established an impressive grazing system to get our cows on pasture as much as possible. Even when the cows aren’t on pasture, the barn they inhabit is designed to keep them comfortable and healthy, equipped with mattresses for each cow and open access to free roam areas outside the barn.

The farm also gives us an opportunity to try new things. As we continue to learn new, sustainable ways to care for our cows, we pass what we learn on to our family-farmer partners, just as they pass what they learn back to us.

We of course aren’t all the way there, and can always get better, but the farm is in our opinion a really strong example of how big and small can come together to find a middle ground, and begin to reshape the system.