The Dairy Problem

“I get why people go vegetarian, but why would one give up dairy? I mean, cows are going to produce milk anyway, right?”

If you’re already part of the plant-based movement, this question may seem silly. But like our teachers always told us, there’s no such thing as a silly question! This is a question I hear time and time again, and it’s no surprise when you realise that we are never really educated about the dairy industry – we are just told that dairy is good for your bones, and it is produced when cows are milked. Because of these misconceptions, it’s a topic that definitely deserves a deeper look. 

The dairy industry is one of the most damaging and destructive industries that operates on a global scale. The problem is threefold – it is ethically horrific, environmentally destructive and also poses grave health concerns to the human population. 

Ethical Issues
Despite common conceptions, cows are not natural milk machines – they don’t just constantly produce milk. In order to produce milk, they first need to give birth. Cows, like humans, don’t naturally pump out baby after baby, especially when living in sub optimal conditions. To improve their fertility, cows are fed fertility hormones. Whilst there are restrictions on growth hormones, fertility hormones (Hormone Growth Promotants) have been approved for use on cows in Australia, and have been part of the practice for over 40 years. 

Most dairy cows are impregnated with artificial insemination, an invasive, painful and unnatural procedure. After a 9 month pregnancy, their calves are born, and are separated from their mothers in the first day or two of their lives. Under natural circumstances, they would stay with their mother for at least 9 months. Take a second, and think about how you would feel. The cows often become aggressive and try to follow their calves. They show signs of distress and can be heard bellowing (sometimes for weeks) for their missing young. Yet they get shuffled into sheds and hooked up to milking machines. After 10 months of exhausting the cow’s milk supply, the animals are forcibly inseminated again and the process starts over.

What about their calves? Male calves are raised in small enclosures then slaughtered for veal. Female calves are then themselves raised to be dairy cows. They are often inseminated before they reach 2 years of age. It’s a vicious and cruel cycle that repeats itself year after year. 

It’s also interesting when you take into consideration the amount of milk each cow is supplying. Less than a century ago, the average dairy cow would produce about 2,500 litres of milk a year. Now, it has increased to 8,000 litres. But how? The dairy industry has honed its practices in order to glean every last drop of milk from these animals. The process places a huge amount of strain on the cow’s body, which leads to a number of health complications. Left to their own devices, the lifespan of cow is, on average, between 20 and 25 years. Most dairy cows are sent to slaughter before their 6th birthday.

What about organic cows? Organic dairy production means that there are stringent requirements about cows not being dosed with antibiotics or growth hormones; they also have to be raised in a more comfortable environment than conventional dairy farms. However, the cruel removal of young calves from their mothers is still perpetuated, as is the removal of horns without anaesthetic and other such barbaric practices. Organic cows are usually allowed to live for 1 year longer, but they all end up at the same slaughterhouses. 

Health Concerns
A little known, yet well researched subject is the health concerns raised from the consumption of milk. We are raised to believe that drinking cow’s milk will help us grow big and strong, without any awareness around the negative components that are packaged up with the liquid. The problem is that we look at foods in terms of their specific components, not in totality. Yes, cow’s milk has lots of calcium, as well as vitamin D and B12 (it’s designed to help baby cows grow), but since milk comes from recently pregnant cows, it also contains hormones that don’t benefit the human body. These hormones are a massive contributor to dairy products being linked to higher rates of acne, as well as increased risk of cancer. It’s not just the vitamins that we are ingesting when we drink milk. We are also getting dosed up with fats and cholesterol.

Dairy has also been linked to an increased risk of heart disease. One of the largest and well known studies, conducted by Harvard Chan School and published by the American Journal of Nutrition (2016), involved a study conducted with 43,000 men and 187,000 women. The study found that when calories from dairy were substituted out in favour of carbohydrates from whole grains, the risk of suffering from heart disease dropped by almost 30%! They also concluded that when the calories from dairy were replaced with calories from red meat, it led to a 6% increase in heart disease risk.

It’s definitely food for thought (get it?). When you think about it with your critical cap on, it’s no surprise really – after all, we are the only species that drinks the milk of another kind, AND the only race that drinks milk after infancy.

Environmental Impact
Agriculture is one of the most destructive industries in terms of environmental impact. This is for a host of reasons – land usage, resource depletion, greenhouse gases, excessive manure, pollution runoff, ocean contamination etc. The list goes on, but let’s start somewhere. 

Cows are a massive contributor to greenhouse gas emissions. Why? This is because they have four stomachs; the largest of which can hold over 200 kgs worth of material. The microbes in their stomachs convert feed to energy, which also creates methane gas. The cows belch this out, releasing it into the atmosphere. The United Nations has calculated the industry to be responsible for 14.5% of all greenhouse gas emissions. That’s MORE than the total produced by the transportation sector which sits slightly lower, at about 14% of worldwide emissions.

Yet it’s not just greenhouse gases that are damaging our planet. The production of dairy is extremely resource intensive. Yes, the cows rely on a large amount of land to be raised, but not only that – a dairy cow eats about 70 kgs of feed each and every day. In order to grow the feed, a huge amount of land, resources and water must be consumed.  As cow’s milk production has increased from 2,500 to 8,000 litres a year, they require more and more feed to sustain the energy output. The irony is that there is enough feed produced to feed our entire global population and end world hunger, yet most of it goes into the mouths of these agricultural animals.

Large dairy farms also pollute the groundwater, rivers and streams. On average, a dairy cow excretes over 70 kgs of manure daily. Much of this ends up in our waterways and drinking water. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, agricultural runoff is a major source of polluted lakes, streams and oceans. Over half the pollution running into the ocean is from land-based sources, which gives you an indication of just how much environmental impact the dairy industry has. 

When there’s so many delicious alternatives to dairy readily available, there really is no need to keep producing milk. We are making these innocent animals suffer, harming our planet and damaging our bodies. Make the switch to plant-based products. Your bodies and your hearts will thank you.

Dara HayesComment