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Should Organic Dairies be allowed to use non-organic food waste?

Written by: Monica Lohr, Caitlin Stoner and Ruth Zeiner


Globally, an estimated 1.3 billion tons of food for humans is lost and wasted each year. There are growing challenges of food security, environmental sustainability and climate change concerns. Food waste at its core is a waste of resources and food waste occurs at every stage of the food system from farm to fork. Getting food from the farm to our tables monopolizes 10 percent of the total U.S. energy budget, uses 50 percent of U.S. land and expends 80 percent of all freshwater consumed in the United States. Yet 40 percent of food in the United States today goes uneaten. This not only means that Americans are throwing out the equivalent of $165 billion each year, but also that the uneaten food ends up rotting in landfills as the single largest component of U.S. municipal solid waste where it accounts for a large portion of U.S. methane emissions (Gunders, 2012).


Based on the qualitative aspects underpinning the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) National Organic Program standards, we should consider amending the national list §205.237(d) Ruminant livestock producers (USDA, 2019) to add ‘(v) shall document all food waste remediation, including processing and contaminant testing prior to rendering components to the Total Feed Ration’ and explore options to incorporate food waste in the cycle in which it’s intended, as a food source. Let’s discuss the benefits of utilizing by-products from food processing as non-organic food waste on organic dairy farms.


According to the review of the literature, the problem defined by the group is whether feeding non-organic food waste to dairy cattle is beneficial both to the cow and the environment. Almost all food waste is treated and processed to get rid of any unwanted material. Then why is it looked down upon to feed organic dairy cattle food waste that is not organic? Feeding non-organic food waste to dairy cattle can possibly fit the sustainability goal of recycling nutrients and closing the loop of production ecosystems. Some farmers have already been furnishing foods such as overripe apples, substandard vegetables and high moisture content foods such as carrots, cantaloupes and pumpkin to their dairy cattle. Additional options could include waste from markets, dehydrated food waste, food by-products with proper treatment and fresh pulped food waste (Walker, 2000). These can have benefits for dairy cattle on their milk production, in their milk components and in reproduction. Angulo, et al. studies establish the beneficial results and supports a more economical livestock production (Angulo et al., 2012).  Thus, the use of traditionally farmed fruit and vegetable produce as animal feed is already accepted.


Utilizing food waste as an animal feed creates opportunities for improved vendor-client relationships in benefit of an enhanced dairy cattle herd by way of positive cow weight changes, healthy body condition scores, better nutritive caloric density and improved absorbable protein. In order to prepare food waste for consumption, pretreatments could include boiling, ensiling, composting, and extrusion to manage possible pathogens (Walker, 2000) Food waste preparation would be followed by dehydrating or pulping any number of region-dependent food wastes.


There has been research completed using multiple different food wastes that can be converted into a nutritious animal feed. One of the most utilized by-products in dairy farms is distiller grains. This is the major co-product of ethanol production.  Schingoethe et al. (2009) showed that rather than other starch-based feeds, distiller grains do not lower rumen pH minimizing acidosis issues. Diets containing distiller grains can support a similar or higher milk production compared with traditional feeds. Feeding distiller products does not affect milk flavor or processing of the various products produced from the milk (Schingoethe et al., 2009).


A study by Humer and his colleagues (2018) evaluated the effect of replacing grains with bakery by-products. Leftovers from bakeries can serve as an energetic food due to their concentration of non-fiber carbohydrates and fat. Their results concluded that the inclusion of bakery by-products up to 30% dry matter had no changes in rumen pH levels, did not alter fiber degradability, and provided a broader microbial diversity (Humer et al., 2018).


Another type of food waste that is not often thought of as livestock feed is sunflower seeds. Sunflower seeds are a rich source of polyunsaturated fatty acids that are perceived to be healthier in the consumer world. Feeding sunflower seeds can increase the secretion of series 2 prostaglandin in the dairy cow’s blood (Petit et al., 2004). Prostaglandin is a naturally secreting hormone that affects the cow’s estrus cycle. Most conventional dairy farmers use a synchronization program to breed their cows. This includes a series of hormone injections and one of those is prostaglandin. Organic dairies are prohibited from using hormone injections, so increasing prostaglandin by using sunflower seeds can induce estrus. In return, this can lead to a higher conception rate (Dyer, 2017). Not only do sunflower seeds help with the overall reproduction of the cow they help lower the excretion of nitrogen in urine more than other fat supplements therefore helping the environment (Petit et al., 2004).


A large proportion of food waste comes from the overproduction of fruit and vegetables. Fruit and vegetable waste not only improve the quality of the environment but the quality of the milk (Angulo et al., 2011).  Dr. Schroeder from University of Wisconsin discussed feeding cull potatoes to dairy cattle. Potatoes are high in energy and are very palatable. It does not alter animal performance (Schroeder, 2012). Going along with fruit waste, citrus pulp is a great source of nutrients that are high in energy and calcium that can be added to the feeding system for dairy cattle. When citrus pulp is fed to cattle, it enriches their milk with polyphenols that can be passed along to humans that can decrease cardiovascular and cancer risks (Lee et al., 2017).


Every year more than 1-billlion pounds of pumpkins are tossed out and left to rot in America’s landfills (Poon, 2019). The inclusion of pumpkins in a dairy cattle ration is a very beneficial option especially during the late fall months when pumpkin production is very high. Pumpkins as an alternative feed additive can not only be a nutritive source of protein, fat, carbohydrates, vitamins and minerals but contain high content of antioxidants and fatty acids that can enhance the quality of milk contributes to a healthier diet for humans (Valdez-Arjona, 2019).


Organic livestock systems prohibit the use of pesticides in food production. There is little research to know if pretreatments actually rid pesticides of contamination altogether. We believe further research should be pursued in studying levels of pesticides, antibiotics, hormones or other prohibited substance contaminants once food waste is processed for feed by animals. A positive outcome could allow for the USDA to include these foods as allowed for the organic program.


Many people have concerns about feeding animals certain food waste. According to the FDA, there are federal regulations set forth such as prohibiting the use of mammalian protein in feeds for ruminant animals. The biggest issue of feeding these prohibited substances is linked to misfolded forms of the prion protein causing diseases such as bovine spongiform encephalopathy. Pennsylvania currently has their own state laws in place stating that animal waste must be heat-treated before use (Harvard, 2016)


To help reduce food waste people need to become more aware of expiration dates and not buy an excessive amount of food. The Environmental Protection Agency has developed a “Food Recovery Hierarchy.” This hierarchy displays methods to recover excess food. When food is no longer edible for human consumption but is still safe for animals, the hierarchy recommends feeding animals the food scraps. This can overall create great relationships. Rutgers University has implemented a system in its dining halls where food scraps are used as animal feed in nearby farms (Harvard, 2016).


We think the USDA should consider a National Organic Program policy addition in allowing organic dairies to feed non-organic food waste as a diet inclusion in a closed loop system sustainability goal. Increasing the efficiency of our food system is a solution that requires collaborative efforts by businesses, governments and consumers (Gunders, 2012). Overall, it can help reduce environmental challenges, champion a massive untapped resource, and improve cow health, reproductivity, and production.




Works Cited


Angulo, J., Mahecha, L., Yepes, S., Yepes, A.M., Bustamente, G., Jaramillo, H., Valencia, E., Villamil, T., & Gallo, J. (2011). Nutritional evaluation of fruit and vegetable waste as feedstuff for diets of lactating holstein cows. Journal of Environmental Management, 95, S210-S214.


Dou, Z., Toth, J.D., &Westendorf, M.L. (2018). Food waste for livestock feeding: Feasibility, safety, and sustainability implications. Global Food Security, 17, 154-161. Retrieved from


Dyer, G.T., & Graves, M.W. (2017) Estrous Synchronization Procedure for Beef Cattle. University of Georgia. Retrieved from


Gunders, D. (2012) Wasted: How America is losing up to 40 percent of its food from farm to fork to landfill. Natural Resources Defense Council.


Humer, E., Aditya, S., Kaltenegger, A., Klevenhusen, F., Petri, R.M., & Zebeli, Q. (2018). Graded substitution of grains with bakery by-products modulates ruminal fermentation, nutrient degradation, and microbial community composition in vitro. Journal of Dairy Science, 101(4), 3085-3098. Retrieved from


Lee, S., Humphries, D., Cockman, D., Givens, D., & Spencer, J. (2017). Accumulation of citrus flavanones in bovine milk following citrus pulp incorporation into the diet of dairy cows, EC Nutrition. 7(4), 143-154.


Poon L. (2019) Smashing the Great Pumpkin Waste Problem. CityLab. Retrieved from


Petit. H.V., Germiquet, C., &Lebel, D. (2004). Effect of Feeding Whole, Unprocessed Sunflower Seeds and Flaxseed on Milk Production, Milk Composition, and Prostaglandin Secretion in Dairy Cows. Journal of Dairy Science, 87(11), 3889-3898. Retrieved from


Rivin, J., Miller, Z., & Matel, O. (2014). Using food waste as Livestock Feed. University of Wisconsin-Extension, A4069-02. Retrieved from


Schinoqoethe, D.J., Kalscheur, K.F., Hippen, A.R., & Garcia, A.D. (2009). Invited review: The use of distiller’s products in dairy cattle diets. Journal of Dairy Science, 92(12), 5802-5813. Retrieved from


Schroeder, K. (2012) Feeding Cull Potatoes to Dairy and Beef Cattle. University of Wisconsin-Extension. Retrieved from


Testroet, E.D., Beitz, D.C., O’Neil, M.R., Mueller, A.L., Ramirez-Ramirez. A.H. & Clark, S. (2018). Feeding reduced-fat dried distillers grains with solubles to lactating Holstein dairy cows does not alter milk composition or cause late blowing in cheese. Journal of Dairy Science, 101(7), 5838-5850. Retrieved from


The Harvard Food Law and Policy Clinic and the Food Recovery Project at the University of Arkansas School of Law (2016). Leftovers for Livestock: A Legal Guide for Using Food Scraps as Animal Feed. Retrieved from


United States Department of Agriculture. (2019). USDA National Organic Program Regulations.


Valdez-Arjona, L. & Ramirez-Mella, M. (2019). Pumpkin waste as livestock feed: impact on nutrition and animal helath and on quality of meat, milk and egg. MDPI. 9,769

Walker, P. (2000) The use of food waste as a feedstuff for ruminants. In M. Westendorf (eds.), Food waste to animal feed (pp. 185-225). Ames (IA): Iowa State University Press.


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