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Organic Milk: How is It Different from Non-Organic Milk?

Since the end of the Second World War, milk has been mass-produced using intensive farming methods. It has been touted as good for us by health professionals and the dairy industry for decades, the average Britain guzzles over 86 litres of it each year and children love it, so it makes sense to ensure we are getting it from a good quality source.

More and more people are willing to dig a bit deeper into their pockets to find the extra few pence (or pounds) to pay for the healthier option, and for many, that means going organic. Milk is no exception.

OMSCo (the Organic Milk Suppliers Cooperative) confirms milk to be the largest single organic product in the UK. Its increasing availability and falling prices make it a popular choice for the consumer. On average, a pint of organic milk will cost just 14 pence more per pint than its non-organic counterpart, and buying multi-litre cartons as many households do, means it works out even cheaper. Supermarket shelves reserved for it are often bare, reflecting its demand.

So why the sudden mad rush for the organic white stuff? Consumers have become increasingly worried about artificial chemicals, antibiotics and pesticides that are required to prevent disease and maximise milk production. With the average cow being excessively milked to produce the highest yield possible, which can be over 11,000 pints of milk per year (more than 10 times as much as they would naturally produce for their calf), mastitis is common.

Affecting 30 per cent of dairy cows, mastitis is a painful infection of the udder routinely treated with antibiotics. The Dairy Council of the United Kingdom states that milk collected from cows treated for mastitis in this way is not sold for human consumption, but some people still have concerns about residues ending up in milk.

Although antibiotics are still used in organic dairy farming, they are kept to a minimum and only used when absolutely necessary, with priority being given to homeopathic and herbal alternatives.

The diet of dairy cows consists of grass, silage (pickled grass), and hay. Large amounts of protein are required to ensure milk demands can be met. One way of achieving this is to supplement the diet with high protein concentrates that can be given in variable proportions, sometimes at unnaturally high levels. This often takes the form of imported genetically modified cattle feed, which helps to keep feeding costs down.

There are strict regulations in place regarding the feed of organic dairy cows, and GM is a no-go area. Instead the bulk of the diet is made up of grass, silage, hay and other green plants rather than concentrates. Whenever concentrates are given they must be GM-free and not animal derived.

It stands to reason that whatever cows eat, ends up in their milk; animals absorb chemicals just like humans. Pesticides and artificial fertilisers are sprayed on pastures and chemical traces of pesticides have been found in milk. The negative environmental impact of this practice is rife, affecting wildlife and soil quality. Nitrates from fertilisers leach into our waterways, leaving water companies with millions of pounds worth of clean up costs each year in order to ensure the safety of drinking water.

Organic dairy farming does not permit synthetic chemicals to be used on pasture and relies on clover as fertiliser. Its implementation of more traditional farming methods, such as crop rotation, helps to restore the balance of wildlife and improve soil.

Animal welfare is a topic that hits a nerve with many people. Standards in which animals are kept vary from farm-to-farm. For example, on conventional dairy farms, cows do not have to be given bedding or much room; some farms never allow their cows to graze outside and instead they remain inside in stalls and the grass is brought to them. Calves may be kept isolated from their mothers and other calves and thus experience great distress.

Organic dairy cows spend the spring and summer months grazing on pasture and are housed comfortably during the winter with bedding and plenty of space. Calves are allowed to socialise which is part of their natural behaviour. Organic dairy farming requires higher standards of welfare for its animals.

When dairy cows are given nutritious, natural food and a better quality of life, this reflects in the quality of their milk. Research has shown organic milk contains higher levels of omega 3 fatty acids, beta-carotene and other cancer-fighting antioxidants than non-organic milk. Organic milk is more natural as it does not contain potentially harmful pesticide residues or originate from cows fed genetically modified food.

This is not to say non-organic milk is bad. Not all farms are created equal; animal welfare standards and farming practices vary considerably. Organic dairy farming is nothing new; it is simply geared towards age-old farming methods used before the Second World War, and not all organic farms adhere to the same principles.

If you want to drink milk that is organic because you believe it is healthier or simply for your own peace of mind, how can you be sure the milk you drink is produced to high organic standards?

Supermarket own-label brands are likely to be supplied by OMSCo. If the OMSCo logo is displayed on a pint it means a farmer registered with a UK organic certification body has produced the milk. Certification bodies include The Soil Association, Organic Farmers & Growers, The Organic Food Federation and Demeter, all of which demand high organic standards of their members. There are also independent brands, which comply with strict organic regulations; a couple to look out for include Rachel's Organic and Yeo Valley.

Some farming principles are still the same throughout organic and non-organic milk production, but if you have decided to go down the organic route it would seem to be a step in the right direction. Providing of course, it hasnít sold out by the time you get your trolley down the dairy aisle.

Sharon Kirby is a freelance health writer who likes to write about exercise, fitness, nutrition and a multitude of other health issues. She also writes about eating disorders such as anorexia, bulimia and binge-eating disorder.