Do you remember seeing this heartwrenching story in the news?:
“She was kept locked in a small closet and was repeatedly impregnated, only to have her babies torn from her just after birth, wailing. She cried for days for every baby. Her daughters often passed into the same slavery she was in. Her sons were killed.”
It is hard to stomach the thought of such horrors happening to even one mother, let alone hundreds of thousands of mothers every single day. But you probably haven’t seen it in the news, because the mothers in question are cows. DON’T STOP READING.
I know there are many of you out there groaning, muttering about how “it’s not the same,” and maybe it’s not. But consider the possibility that there are some major things about the dairy industry you don’t know, and just bear with me for a few paragraphs here. At the end, you’re entitled to your opinion – an opinion based on facts and your own conscience. BECAUSE I HAD NO IDEA, and I know I’m not the only one who thought, “well, cows don’t die in milk production, so it can’t be that cruel.” Once you know the whole truth about dairy cruelty, it’s your decision to make.
I can’t believe how wrong I was thinking dairy was ok compared to the meat industry. The atrocities of the dairy industry are so extreme that I am actually more comfortable eating meat than I am any form of dairy – especially cow’s milk/cheese/etc.
The Science of Love and Suffering
Last year, the scientific community came together and “officially” announced that animals are conscious in the same way humans are. The timing of this announcement came as a surprise to many pet owners, because we’ve known this for decades. Anyone who has seen a dog mourn for a missing human companion or dance happily at the prospect of going for a run could easily tell you that animals are conscious. Consciousness is not a phenomenon unique to dogs or to “pet” animals; it is just something we notice more easily in them because we live with them.
It has likewise been proven that most mammals experience a nearly identical mother-child bond to what we humans experience. The feeling is caused by the same primary hormone, oxytocin, and floods the same brain centers. Meaning cow mothers feel the same way about their babies as human mothers do, and calves feel the same need for their mothers that human babies do.
That was enough for me. I don’t know how I had never once thought about the fact that dairy cows had to be impregnated to create dairy products. It’s rather obvious, but we are so separated from our food production in this culture that it literally never even crossed my mind until I saw it mentioned in an article one day. And my immediate pondrance was, “then what happens to the calves?”
And a day of research later, I was off dairy hard. When I started on my ethical eating path, I thought cheese was the one animal product I would never give up. Now, that thought is nothing more than a testament to how clueless I was about our food production systems.
The Source of Most Dairy
According to the EPA, the “vast majority” of milk and milk products in the US come from “intensive production” operations, meaning factory farms. Other sources cite the exact number at 99%. Factory farms are not the cows you see grazing in the pasture when you drive through the midwest. Those are the other 1% (or, more often, those are grass fed beef). If you pick up any dairy product in the grocery store, you’re picking up the product of a factory farm (with very, very rare exceptions).
The blurb at the beginning of this article, while it may seem sensational, is exactly what is faced by hundreds of thousands of dairy cows in factory farms across the US every single day. This is not a little problem. In addition to the nearly incomprehensible numbers of living, feeling beings suffering in these conditions every day; in addition to the grotesque, cruel treatment they are subjected to, there is also the fact that these farms are destroying the environment.
Factory farming, and dairy farming in particular, produces astounding amounts of pollution – air, land, and water pollution. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that confined animals generate three times more raw waste than humans in the United States and a 2006 report by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) found that animal agriculture is responsible for 18% of all human-induced greenhouse gas emissions – 37% of methane emissions and 65% of nitrous oxide emissions. The use of fossil fuels on farms to grow feed and to intensively raise land animals for food emits 90 million tons of CO2 worldwide every year. In the US alone, methane emissions from pig and dairy cow manure increased by 45% and 94% respectively between 1990 and 2009.
That doesn’t even touch on the effects of feed grown to support factory farming, which has devastating effects not only on the environment, but on the global economy contributing to human starvation worldwide.
The environmental hazards are also closely tied in with public health hazards. Here are a few examples from the Natural Resources Defense Council:
- California officials identify agriculture, especially cows, as the major source of nitrate pollution in more than 100,000 square miles of polluted groundwater.
- In 1996 the Centers for Disease Control established a link between spontaneous abortions and high nitrate levels in Indiana drinking water wells located close to factory farms.
- High levels of nitrates in drinking water also increase the risk of methemoglobinemia, or “blue-baby syndrome,” which can kill infants.
- In May 2000, 1,300 cases of gastroenteritis were reported and six people died as the result of E. coli contaminating drinking water in Walkerton, Ontario. Health authorities determined that the most likely source was cattle manure runoff.
- Manure from dairy cows is thought to have contributed to the disastrous Cryptosporidium contamination of Milwaukee’s drinking water in 1993, which killed more than 100 people, made 400,000 sick and resulted in $37 million in lost wages and productivity.
- In this country, roughly 29 million pounds of antibiotics — about 80 percent of the nation’s antibiotics use in total — are added to animal feed every year to speed livestock growth. This widespread use of antibiotics on animals has been proven to directly contribute to the rise of resistant bacteria, making it harder to treat human illnesses.
And there is a heck of a lot more where that came from. Check out the NRDC website for more on these hazards. For more information about the environmental consequences of factory farming and the dairy industry, check here and here.
But I love cheese!
As I mentioned, I really thought there was no chance I would ever give up cheese. We gave up drinking milk pretty easily the second we found out about the negative health effects associated with drinking cows milk – including increased risk of osteoporosis (because, contrary to what the dairy industry has claimed, drinking cow’s milk actually weakens your bones) – increased risk of cancer and disease (have you watched Forks Over Knives yet?) – and likely causing earlier onset of puberty (which, as the mother of a 10 year old, would be 16 year old, is more than enough reason to toss the milk).
So cow’s milk was out, and it was easy and painless. There are so many excellent alternatives that are so much better for you – Almond milk, Flax milk, Hemp milk, Soy milk, Coconut milk, Rice milk – and they are widely and easily available. These days we usually have one carton of unsweetened regular and one carton of unsweetened vanilla almond milk in our fridge most of the time. When making the switch, keep in mind that it takes the human tongue an average of 14 tries to become accustomed to a new flavor. Even if you prefer the taste of cow’s milk to begin with, if you stick with a plant based milk for at least 3 weeks, you will likely find that you come to prefer it.
Plus, once I started breastfeeding I became very aware of how specially designed human milk is for human babies, and the thought of drinking cows’ breastmilk started to creep me out.
But cheese! Oh, cheese! I still thought cheese and I would never part ways.
Until I was confronted with the image of a mother cow wailing and fighting to reach her baby as the baby was torn from her. Until I found out that the baby will cry for its mother, alone in confinement, for days until its throat is completely raw or until it is slaughtered. There is no chance in the world that I will take the product of that suffering into my body. There is no chance that I will allow a single cent of mine tell those companies that that torture is profitable.
At first, we tried a variety of cheese substitutes – fake cheeses, if you will. None of them really worked for us. Then I discovered Nutritional Yeast. The name doesn’t sound particularly tasty, but this stuff is amazing. I did a whole post on it. I don’t look at “Nooch” as a substitute for cheese, which is part of the reason I love it. I don’t compare it to cheese, but I do find that it works amazingly in situations where I would have used cheese before. And then I found a flavor of Daiya vegan cheese that was amazing mixed into some recipe I was making.
I also discovered that Vegan cream cheese is a near perfect match for the suffering laced “real” stuff. And as for ice cream and yogurt, I’ll take coconut milk ice cream any day (yogurt, too). The stuff is amazing. Ah – mazing. There is nothing like some So Delicious Vanilla Bean with some Fair Trade Chocolate melted over top. MacGyver swears by So Delicious Passionate Mango flavor. They also make flavored coffee creamers.
Not that I’m trying to tout processed foods, but these are excellent treats. Ultimately, though, the answer to this whole dairy conundrum is to stop worrying about what one “can’t” have and love the amazing foods we get the pleasure of experiencing.
I am a vegetable lover. The variety and flexibility is astounding. And not having to worry about fat content or weight gain because so much of what I eat is vegetables is amazing. Since giving up most meat and all cow dairy products, the variety of foods we eat, and the quality and flavor profiles of those foods has increased drastically. It’s really amazing to see what can happen when you free yourself from the programming of the factory farm industry and start looking at foods, especially vegetables, as an adventure.
What about “Humane Dairy”?
I used to be a big proponent of “humane dairy.” I used to think the worst part of cheese was the rennet from the stomachs of slaughtered baby cows used to make cheese. I was wrong. There is no one worst part. The whole industry is disgusting. It is killing the environment. It is killing us. And it is soullessly torturing mothers and babies that want nothing more than to be together in a pasture somewhere.
I still love cheese, and I am still looking for a humane source. I know it’s possible. I know it is possible for a cow to be allowed to keep her calf and to still spare some portion of milk for cheese making. On a very small scale. Like an “I want to have one cow of my own some day to make milk and she can keep her calf” sort of scale.
I have contacted many producers who claim to be humane. Organic Valley, who I used to promote as a humane source, only allows the calves to stay with the cows for 5 days. I sure as heck wouldn’t want my baby taken away after 5 days, so that’s not good enough for me. And it was the “best” one I’ve found so far. So no cow cheese for me. And really, it’s totally worth it to avoid being part of such an atrocious system.
BUT, I do have a container of some amazing feta in my fridge from a local goat farm which was described to me (by a friend of mine) as a “goat commune.” I’m told the kids get to stay with their mothers and all goats, male or female get to grow up happy on the farm. We plan to visit the farm sometime soon to ensure this is true. But we’re really in no rush, because as it turns out, I don’t miss dairy nearly as much as I thought I would. It seems I’ve been de-programmed.
Making Informed Decisions
It is the responsibility of any individual to gather up information and make informed choices about how they will exist in the world. I have tried to lay out my reasons for swearing off dairy without being too confrontational. Some people get downright angry when confronted with the very real pictures and videos of what goes on at factory farms every single day. I’m not sure why someone would get mad when being shown something factual, but my guess is it has to do with guilt. It is one thing to know there is cruelty and to do nothing. It is something else to refuse to acknowledge the cruelty even exists and to react with anger at this fact.
I encourage you to do further research on your own. I especially encourage you to read the two following articles. They are brief, but they make a very clear and very important point about the dairy industry without the images and videos:
And if you are prepared to know the real and whole truth, arm yourself with the reality of what goes on in Factory Farms:
Or watch some videos – if you feel like having your heart beaten up today.
We are Unitarian Universalists. I am also Pagan. MacGyver is also Buddhist. And both of these tend to overlap, integrate, and basically mush together over the course of our marriage. So we’re pretty much UU Pagan Buddhists at this point. But what you call it doesn’t matter because any even when you pull them apart, each of these religions mandates that an individual act to end suffering.
Food and religion go hand-in-hand – communion, fasting, kosher foods, “clean” foods, etc. What you eat becomes a part of you, and what you choose to eat has effects that ripple out into the world around you.
As such, I refuse to knowingly take the products of cruelty and suffering into my body. I will not allow that to become a part of me. I can think of no food more unclean than that which is tainted with torture. Unitarian Universalism empowers me to respect the interdependant web of life of which we are all a part. Paganism reminds me that everything I send out into the Universe will come back to me multiplied by three. Buddhism charges us to strive for the end of suffering. My Christian upbringing taught me to help those in need and treasure the planet as a gift.
All of that is, of course, simplified. But the result remains the same: Every ounce of my religion points me toward compassion, toward responsible stewardship of the Earth, and toward ending suffering. Keeping the products of suffering out of my body is the very least I can do.
What Can You Do?
Give up dairy. Just like that. Drink water. Drink plant milks. Explore the myriad amazing possibilities in the world of plant based foods. There are plenty of excellent recipes right here on Urban Earthworm, and millions of others just waiting to be discovered (like on Pinterest…).
Know where your food is coming from. Shop Farmer’s Markets and avoid anything from factory farms. Buy Fair Trade and Equal Exchange products. Learn.
Be a voice for those whose voices are unheard. Write to your Representative and Senator and tell them you are NOT ok with the atrocities allowed in the factory farming industry.
Remember that your wallet also has a voice. Don’t let any of your hard earned money go to unethical and inhumane corporations.
Show your support. No matter where you stand on the scale of activism and awareness, there is an organization out there for you.
Animal Legal Defense Fund
People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals
American Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals
Mercy for Animals
The list is long and varied. Find an organization that’s right for you. If you want to really understand these animals, follow Farm Sanctuary on Instagram, or like these organizations on Facebook.