This Saturday the Toronto star ran a story entitled Turkey Wars about the contrasting requirements of the Turkey Farmers of Ontario and the Canadian Organic Standards. The story paints a picture of a agricultural industry at odds with organic farmers, requiring farmers to adhere to two incompatible standards at the same time. The standards in discussion have to do with housing of organic turkeys. The organic standards require that turkeys have access to pasture at all times, and the Turkey Farmers of Ontario just passed a bylaw saying that in order to hold turkey quota all turkeys must be housed under a solid roof at all times. This means that there is no way that farmers cannot both be certified organic and hold quota. This is where the controversy begins, should organic turkeys be exempt from the housing requirements of the marketing board?
Each side of the argument has there own well thought out reasons behind their standards. To start commercially raised turkeys are raised indoors to provide a consistent environment and temperature. These areas are meant to be bio-secure in order to reduce the transfer of disease and pests between barns as well as to limit interaction with the exterior environment. This new requirement was established mainly to deal with avian influenza which is carried by wild birds and transfered to domestic birds. On the other hand the organic standards are also well thought out and developed. They require birds to be outside in order to provide them with the most natural and stress free environment possible. Their requirements of more space per bird, more natural foods and more freedom improve the health of the birds. These goals cannot be accomplished with birds indoors 24 hours a day. This means that neither side is wrong and are both acting to protect the quality of their respective industries, so who should be required to change?
My first instinct after reading this article was that a few organic farms producing turkeys outside couldn’t be a major issue and that the marketing board should make an allowance for certified organic turkeys. This was based on my assumptions that the fact that most organic farms raise rare heritage breeds of turkeys and generally have very healthy birds. This should protect their flocks from the impacts of avian influenza and therefore they should not increase the likely hood of any other turkey farms of getting the disease. This is also the stance that the article takes, unfortunately their is no scientific documentation to back up that claim and no reason to say that these rare breeds are more immune as currently the flu is being cared by wild birds not large populations of domestic poultry. This lead me to think deeper on the issue and come up with a slightly different opinion on the topic.
The Toronto Star article sites that the ruling of the Turkey Farmers of Ontario effected only 2 organic turkey farms in the province. These two organic turkey farms are now being told that in order to continue to be able to produce organically certified turkeys they will loose their quota, which means they will only be able to produce a backyard flock of 50 turkeys. This means that they will not be able to produce large numbers that can be processed by a large packing plant and delivered to grocery stores across the province. It seems to me that these two farms are trying to get their fingers into two pies at the same time, they are trying to cash in on the organic craze in supper markets and mass produce turkeys at the same time to make more money. In order to be more completely organic the farms should be working on direct marketing their turkeys, for which they would have difficulty selling many more then 50 turkeys. Perhaps they should be working to have the backyard flock allowance increased from 50 to 250 or so. This is what was done with chickens in 2008, when it was increased from 102 birds to 300 birds . This would allow them to produce a reasonably large number of turkeys to true organic standards and sell them directly to local customers.
This conclusion is definitely not included in the Star article, in fact the article leaves the industry as the bad guy and the lonely organic farmer as a hypothetical David versus the industries Goliath. This is echoed in the responses on the website, the majority of which are clearly one sided and have almost nothing to do with agriculture but more to do with economics and politics. All in all I don’t think it’s the end of the road for organic turkeys, but maybe it is for cheap organic turkeys available at the big chain grocery stores, and maybe that’s not a bad thing.