Thursday, January 06, 2011

The Ethics Of Dairy Consumption

Reading The Way We Eat has led me to conclude that consuming cow's milk as we do in this country must be one of the most ethically compromising actions we perform.

First, the milk is intended for cows' offspring. But we take a calf away from its mother literally hours after birth so we may confiscate the newborn's food. A calf normally suckles and bonds for 6 months.

Second, to keep a cow producing milk you have to keep her pregnant. How do you make a cow pregnant every year? Often by artificial insemination. The collection of sperm is an unsettling read.

Third, the dairy industry has little use for all those male calves born from the accelerated forced-pregnancy schedule; they don't produce milk. What does the industry do with male calves? Most are slaughtered immediately and sold as pet food.
"From the calf's point of view, immediate slaughter is the better fate, for it spares him 16 weeks of confinement in semi-darkness" fed only 'milk replacer' and a cocktail of chemicals which prepares his flesh to be sold as veal.
Fourth, dairy cows live a short, hard life:
"Although the natural lifespan of a cow is around 20 years, dairy cows are usually killed at between five and seven years of age, because they cannot sustain the unnaturally high rate of milk production."
Fifth, dairy farms are large and acute sources of air pollution, water pollution, and greenhouse gases. Residents nearest the farms are the hardest hit.

I can see why businesses shun ethics, but what about consumers? Why is this OK with us?

Mary Ann, a consumer interviewed for the book, who lives, as she describes, "in one of the most expensive places in the country," says:
"If we're talking food, it has to taste as good. I want an ethical choice that tastes the same."
"If I had more time on my hands, I'd probably make better ethical choices, but I would have to go out of my way, which I can't do much of right now."
So, taste and inconvenience trump ethics.

I wasn't necessarily seeking this information. But what do you do with it once you have it?
Source for quotations: The Way We Eat: Why Our Food Choices Matter, Peter Singer and Jim Mason.


Angela and Melinda said...

You either ignore the info or you go vegan. (The same basic idea applies to hens raised for eggs--unnatural and short life lived abominably.) I could easily go the rest of my life w/o dairy milk or yogurt (I already do)& I can do w/o eggs & meat. I also don't buy leather clothing/shoes/furniture or any other functional product that I know contains animal ingredients.

But my culinary pleasure in life would be considerably diminished if I never ate aged cheeses again.

I really struggle w/ this. I'm veg for ethical reasons, not b/c I don't like meat, etc. Cheese is the monkey wrench in the works. There are recipes for things like cashew cheese, which I probably should try to make. The commercially available cheese substitutes really suck though--like coagulated cardboard.

I already knew this about dairy cows, esp. agri-biz cows, though the situation for organically grown, pastured cows is not substantially different. (See interview about differences here: --about halfway down the page.) Because I knew is why I struggle--each time I eat cheese--or the occasional egg--I think about these cows & chickens.

One interesting point that someone raised, though, is what would humans do w/ all the cows if everyone stopped eating dairy & meat? One huge slaughter? Let them roam wild? (Not bloody likely.)

It's all extremely disturbing, and now you've got me thinking about it again, which probably is a good thing, but....

Angela and Melinda said...

One other thing--there are the humane slaughter procedures invented by Dr. Temple Grandin, which, if followed, at least ease suffering at the end of life for cows, pigs, etc. But of course that doesn't address the suffering during these animals' lives.

RB said...

"Eating Animals" by Jonathan Safran Foer raising many of the issues you raised in your blog and attempts to address them. Eating animals and animal products is not an easy issue to reconcile; especially in these days of industrial food product.

Unknown said...

I would like to encourage you to visit a dairy farm for yourself. Having been raised on a dairy farm, I feel ashamed that we have failed at educating consumers about the hard work and care we put into our farm and our cows. Please, before criticizing an industry you are unfamiliar with, go to the source. Not a book written by someone that has never set foot on farm land. If you are looking for a farm to visit, please contact me, as I would be happy to help set something up.

Ben P. DaSalt said...

Alise said:
“Please, before criticizing an industry you are unfamiliar with, go to the source. Not a book written by someone that has never set foot on farm land.”

“I was raised in the forties and fifties on a 160-acre family farm in the southwest Missouri Ozarks, living and working beside my parents, my father's parents, his sister, Wilma, and my two older brothers. The family maintained an orchard, a large vegetable garden, and separate “patches” for asparagus, potatoes, and strawberries. We grew wheat and soybeans to sell, and corn and hay for our animals: chickens, beef cattle, milk cows, and pigs. We sold eggs and milk at local markets. Everyone worked, for there was a lot to do: build fences, cut firewood, plow fields (then go back and pick up wagon-loads of rocks), weed gardens, harvest hay and crops, clean pens, haul manure, slaughter animals, and other occasional chores. Then there were the twice-daily chores: feed and water animals, gather eggs, and milk the cows. I milked cows by hand for 12 years; that’s about 8,700 milkings.”
-- Jim Mason, The Way We Eat (Preface, page vii)

Unknown said...

Ben- thank you for posting that. What's interesting is that Mr. Mason grew up on a farm in the forties and fifties. A lot can happen in 60 years, especially when you consider technology and population. I wouldn't consider the time that my grandpa farmed to be "modern day farming", nor should anyone else. I am open to other people's opinions of food, I simply wish they would allow others to make their own choices without criticism. Have you been on a farm in the past five to ten years?

Bix said...

Melinda, the Pete McCormack article was good.

Bix said...

Alise, I appreciate you opening up about how you feel. I've been thinking about what you said. So, it isn't whether the points I made in my post are true, for I believe they are true. Differences are in matter of degrees. It's about whether we find them ethical. Even if we find taking a calf's milk or killing a cow prematurely unethical, we must be choosing to ignore our ethics, since we, society, sanction these practices.

I spent time on a dairy farm in upstate Pennsylvania when I was young.

Back to degrees...
I'm not sure what degree I would find ethical to obtain milk. It would have to include ... Not artificially inseminating, not preventing a calf from suckling and bonding, not feeding a cow an unnatural diet and chemicals to have it produce more. There is a more ethical way at least, but it would result in a lot less milk.

I admire your more ethical way of farming.

David said...

A relevant article in yesterday's WSJ:

For me the question is deciding if milk alternatives, such as those discussed in the WSJ article, provide the same or better nutrients than traditional cow's milk.

If I was convinced that growing almonds and making them into milk didn't hurt the environment, the people around those farms, and I continued to get the same level of nutrients that I currently get from a cow's milk, then I would consider changing my behavior.

Anonymous said...

@ Dr Mel:

this comment comes a little late (I stumbled on this article whilst googling the ethics of cheese). I too miss the mouth-feel of aged cheese dreadfully, but I find that natto (Japanese-style fermented soy beans) takes some edge off that craving.

Bix said...

Speaking of natto, I can't find it anywhere. Still looking...

Although, I've developed this weird habit of slicing off a piece of tempeh from the fridge, sprinkling it with salt, and eating it cold, like cheese.

Angela and Melinda said...

Thanks, Anonymous, for the tip re natto. If I can find it, I'll give it a try!