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“Healthy food” from healthy cows.

Sundrum, Albert (2012) “Healthy food” from healthy cows. In: Konvalina, Petr (Ed.) Organic Farming and Food Production. InTech Book, Rijeka, chapter 5, pp. 95-120.

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Conclusions: Organic farming has committed itself to outperforming conventional farming in a number of areas including animal health. However, organic standards based on minimum requirements do not automatically lead to a high status of animal health that exceeds the level in conventional production and thus, does not in all respects meet consumers’ expectations. Improvements are crucial to support and strengthen consumers’ confidence and their willingness to pay premium prices. These are urgently needed to cover the higher production costs in organic farming and thus ensure a viable organic dairy production.
According to previous knowledge, assessments of the quality of organic milk provides inconsistent results and often falls short of expectations as it is often similar or even lower than the quality of conventionally produced milk. In view of the large heterogeneity between organic farms in relation to both living conditions of the farm animals and the status of animal health, it appears to have been a congenital failure of organic agriculture to have neglected the definition of minimum standards with respect to the qualitative outcome of the production process, especially the status of animal health.
While farmers as owners are initially responsible for the well-being of their farm animals, they are very limited in their options of decision-making as they, in general, possess little financial flexibility that can be used for improvements. In the past, a clear increase in the productivity of milk production has led to a remarkable decrease of milk prices in relation to the general income from which the consumers have benefited in the first place. While there might have been time periods when the majority of farmers and also farm animals have gained advantage from technical innovations, these times have definitely gone. Dairy cows pay the continuous increase in productivity and milk yield with an increase in the prevalence rates of production diseases and with a decrease in longevity (Knaus, 2009). Farmers are facing a high volatility of milk prices. In recent years, they have gone through a long phase of milk prices which did not cover the total production costs. Correspondingly, the number of dairy farmers who had to quit has increased dramatically. The predominant competition is based on the reduction of prices while widely ignoring the internal and external costs that emerge from these processes. In Europe, the phase-out of the Milk Quota Regulation in 2015 will fuel the competition even more. In face of the shortfall to be financed, the increase in herd size and the decrease in available resources (labor time and investments), there is reason to assume that the situation in the future will become even worse. While the market fails to provide different levels of product and process quality, national governments fail to prevent unfair competition on the market. On the other hand, they are not forced by the majority of voters to initiate and chair changes in the predominating structures of the market.
From the farmers’ perspective, to honor a higher health status by premium prices, and to reduce unfair competition are of great importance to improve the unsatisfying situation. The market, however, fails to provide incentives for any quality improvements, often blaming the consumers for not being prepared to pay adequate premium prices. On the other hand, the consumers are not appropriately informed about the current level of product and process quality and are misguided by sales promotion. It is generally accepted in the market economy that the stakeholders being part of the food chain are striving for their own benefit in the first place. In the complex interactions between stakeholders groups, the players generally pose in active as well as in passive roles, and are both victims and offenders. In general, the strength of one actor is based on the weakness of the other stakeholders. While farm animals and farmers are in a very weak position, retailers and supermarkets are in a strong position to beat down the price in order to increase the turnover rates and their profit. Nevertheless, they can only act in such a way because consumer groups are dominated by bargain hunters, and those who are largely ignoring the problems of the other stakeholders, including health and welfare problems of the farm animals. Consumers are able to make a choice between large ranges of products without being able to assess their quality. Expenditures for food in relation to the total budget of a household have dramatically decreased during the last few decades. Hence, consumers in general can afford more expensive food products if their priorities are inclined in this fashion. However, consumers have become used to very low food prices while imagining they are on the safe side concerning the quality issue.
So far estimations of consumers with respect to traits of food and process quality are primarily based on associations and on expectations deriving therefrom. They are definitely not evidence based. Large variations in features that are relevant for those who buy organic products meet with large variations in the factual results of quality traits. Currently, the complexity of processes within the food production chain is reduced primarily to the quantifiable size of the price stakeholders receive or have to pay for the intermediate or the final product. However, prices for intermediate or final dairy products are unreal for their part as they do not represent and include the entity of the internal and external costs of the production process, e.g. the worse animal health situation for dairy cows, and the non-covering of the productions costs, let alone the environmental impacts due to the high amounts of nutrient losses and emissions of greenhouse gas caused by the processes of production and processing. While consumers could afford higher milk prices, only few and not enough are willing to face the problems, caused by the impacts of their buying behavior and by the unfair competition within the market. As long as not enough producers are willing to enlighten the consumers about the real production conditions and as long as not enough consumers are not really interested to get an inside view into the production processes, the discrepancies between demands and reality of organic and conventional dairy production is expected to continue.
One of the most frequently asked questions in western society: who is to blame for malfunction, does not provoke an easy and obvious answer as all human stakeholders are part of a production system that is based on exploitation of land area, and farm animals, some to a higher and some to a lesser degree. Currently, stakeholder groups involved are not prepared to rethink their dominating pattern of thoughts and are not willing to risk the possible need for changes when having a closer look at the living conditions of farm animals and the impacts on product and process quality. The persisting power is still too high to provide a chance for real improvements. While some stakeholders are trapped in inherent necessities with very small degrees of freedom in decision making, consumers are free to decide on what they spent their money and are benefitting simultaneously from very low food prices. Correspondingly, they could be blamed in the first place for their ignorance towards the impacts of their buying behavior on the production process and on animal health and welfare. Any complaints by consumers with respect to the low level of product and process quality, either in conventional or in organic dairy production, should be rejected.
In general, food does not exert a direct influence on human health but is well known for providing both positive and/or negative impacts on the capability of the organism to cope with the various and specific demands. Thus, the slogan “healthy food from healthy animals” represents an abbreviated mental association, not being scientifically sound. However, the slogan is applicable and valid in the way that only milk from healthy cows with healthy udders is delivering the starting product for milk products of top quality. Currently, milk and milk products are not available on the market which derives exclusively and evidence based from healthy cows. If consumers really want food from healthy cows they have to establish a corresponding demand and have to reject those products that do not fulfill this demand.

EPrint Type:Book chapter
Subjects: Animal husbandry > Production systems > Dairy cattle
Animal husbandry > Health and welfare
Research affiliation: Germany > University of Kassel > Department of Animal Nutrition and Animal Health
Related Links:http://www.intechopen.com/books/organic-farming-and-food-production
Deposited By: Hoischen-Taubner, Susanne
ID Code:25127
Deposited On:09 Apr 2014 12:02
Last Modified:09 Apr 2014 12:02
Document Language:English
Refereed:Peer-reviewed and accepted

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