Science says Starbucks shouldn’t go organic

A Starbucks Worker pours milk into an iced coffee in Aggieville on Oct. 16, 2014. Starbucks is under pressure to switch to organic milk due to health benefits. (Sahil Arora | The Collegian)

Starbucks is under pressure to switch the milk used in its stores from conventional to organic. A campaign was launched in early October via social media, with eight national groups, including Green America’s GMO Inside, urging Starbucks customers post on their social media accounts with #OrganicMilkNext.

Dave Murphy, founder and executive director of Food Democracy Now!, an organization that campaigns to build a sustainable food system and protect the environment, said to the environmental news website EcoWatch, “It’s time for Starbucks to commit to transparency and the highest quality ingredients for their customers.”

The campaign aims to get Starbucks to convert to organic milk because conventional milk is produced with “genetically modified organisms, particularly the crops used to feed dairy cows that provide the milk Starbucks uses in its lattes and cappuccinos.” It also claimed that the usage of “these crops degrade the quality of our land and water, perpetuate corporate-controlled agriculture and have potentially negative health impacts on humans and livestock.”

Such statements about genetically modified organisms, however, are challenged by producer groups. According to the National Dairy Council, there is no difference between organic and regular milk in terms of quality, safety and nutrition.

“Both contain the same combination of nutrients that make dairy foods an important part of a healthy diet,” a fact sheet the from council said.

Jeff Stevenson, professor of animal sciences and industry, said there is no research to suggest that organic milk is safer for consumers and from an animal welfare perspective, as conventionally raised dairy cattle are healthier because they are treated when they are sick.

“Milk is pasteurized either way it is produced,” Stevenson said. “There are state and federal regulations on the standards that dairy producers have to meet before it goes in the milk supply. This includes requirements of all milk to be antibiotic residue free.”

Stevenson said the definition of organic milk refers to farm management practices, not to the milk itself. He said in his dairy science course that he doesn’t advocate for either organic or conventional farming; he just teaches them how to better understand the dairy industry “from farm to fork.”

Jim Dickrell, editor of Dairy Today, said that GMO Inside’s campaign claim that organic milk will help create a more sustainable environment is false.

“There are no valid scientific studies that say organic milk is safer for the environment than conventional milk,” Dickrell said. “Research by the Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy, involving more than 500 dairy farms, shows no difference between conventional and organic dairy farms in terms of carbon footprint.”

Moving past the scientific differences, Stevenson said the organic label is a sales tactic “to sell their product to a market that is uninformed.”

That sentiment is echoed by Andrew Novakovic, professor of agriculture economics at Cornell University, who said proving organic claims of safety “is a tricky business. In the world of commerce, proof is not required. The consumer is king (gets what s/he wants). Safety generally connotes that a food will not make you sick, as opposed to making you more healthy. In this sense, conventional and organic foods both must mean the same standards of food safety and both can be regarded as very safe.”

The U.S. produces 21 billion gallons of milk each year and Starbucks uses only .44 percent of it in their stores with 93 million gallons of milk per year.

The American Society of Animal Sciences issued a statement in support of conventional milk on Oct. 8. The statement said there is no scientific basis for Starbucks to switch to organic milk and there are many studies showing genetically modified organisms crops pose no health threat to animals or humans.

“The U.S. milk supply is safe, wholesome and nutritious,” the statement said. “That remains true nearly two decades after the introduction of genetically-engineered crops in 1996. Furthermore, it has been repeatedly shown that feed crops of biotech origin do not compromise the health, well-being and ability of food-producing animals to contribute to a safe, plentiful food supply. This messaging creates further mistrust and confusion about GE feed crops among consumers when these feeds pose no health threat to animals or to the humans who consume animal-derived products.”

Starbucks offers a soy milk option and doesn’t buy milk from dairies that use growth hormones. The National Dairy Council describes these growth hormones as “a natural protein hormone that helps (cows) produce milk. Some dairy farmers choose to supplement their cows’ bST to boost milk production, helping to ensure a plentiful milk supply.”

Editor’s note: This story was updated at 3:45 p.m., Oct. 20 to reflect updated information.