Is It Possible To Produce ‘Ethical’ Dairy?

can dairy be ethical? dairy cow in field
Wednesday, 19 September 2018

 

By Anna Wotherspoon, law student

Growing awareness of the welfare concerns posed by animal use industries has ushered in a variety of ‘higher welfare’ products. Traditionally focused on products such as eggs and meat, increasingly attention is being drawn to the ethical issues associated with dairy production. One of the most significant issues concerns the separation of mothers from their calves, so that humans can benefit from the milk intended for their offspring. Some dairies are trying to set themselves apart from traditional dairies by refusing to separate mothers and calves and instead allowing calves to drink their fill before harvesting excess milk.

I applaud those people who are working hard to make such initiatives a reality, and believe that they are the first steps forward towards building a kinder world for all animals. However, a holistic examination of dairy (and other animal) industries reveal that exploitation is an inescapable consequence where animals are used to produce marketable goods consumed by the masses.

The removal of calves from their mothers and the slaughter of hours to five-day old calves are merely some concerns presented by the dairy industry. 2 Dehorning, disbudding, tail docking, indoor confinement, lameness, mastitis and calving induction also present significant welfare concerns.3

It may well be that these issues are managed or minimised at self-proclaimed ethical dairies. However, economies of scale will always work against small scale farms. In Australia alone, the national milking herd produced just over 9 billion litres in 2016/2017,5 a miniscule percentage of which is contributed by dairies that place calf welfare first. Small scale, higher welfare operations simply cannot produce quantities sufficient to meet this kind of demand without compromise.

Cows have a natural lifespan of 20 years, yet are typically slaughtered at 6-7 in the dairy industry, when milk production starts to decline.7  If small scale operations are to expand their production, how will they afford to house, feed and provide for an ever-growing number of non-productive cows, who will live for a further 13-14 years after their milk production ceases?

How does a sustainable business model sustain such inefficiency? By remaining a small-scale operation. Inevitably, this approach means that they will only ever be able to cater for a select few consumers. Thus, if current demand for milk products is to continue (and this is an important caveat, one which applies throughout this discussion), the introduction of small-scale dairies will only ever go so far towards reforming the dairy industry as a whole and reducing the suffering of the animals involved.

The hard truth of this statement was acknowledged by New Zealand dairy farmer Glen Herud, founder of Happy Cow Milk.9 Four years on from the business’ inception, he has finally admitted to himself that the venture, intended to produce ethical, sustainable milk, has failed. As Herud now recognises, ‘leaving cows with their mothers wouldn’t work’; the economic inefficiencies inherent in ‘ethical milk’ could not be overcome.

The only reason that there is more milk than needed to nourish calves is that the modern dairy cow has been genetically bred to produce an excess of milk (more than twice as much as they did 50 years ago).10  The metabolic and physical strain of producing such huge volumes of milk has adverse consequences for a cow’s health and wellbeing.11 These concerns are inherent in an industry that requires female cows to exist in a continual cycle of pregnancy and milk production. Fundamentally, high-volume milk production will compromise a cow’s welfare, regardless of whether she gets to feed her calf and provide milk for us, or only the latter.

If we want to sustain the current provision of meat, dairy and other animal products to a growing human population, the need to upscale and mass-produce means that, at a practical level, higher-welfare regimes cannot become a universal practice.

Products produced under these higher-welfare regimes, which inherently produce less yield and cost more than their lower-welfare counterparts, will only be available in limited quantities to those who can afford it. A choice must be made between high-welfare and mass production. The two outcomes are not compatible in a resource-limited system. If current demand for animal products is set to continue and be met, higher welfare practices will only alleviate welfare concerns for some animals, while the vast majority continue to suffer.  

If we are to confront the welfare concerns presented by animal use industries head on, perhaps we need to change the question. Instead of asking how we can combat welfare issues inherent in animal use industries, why don’t we investigate the feasibility of alternatives?

To continue with the example of the dairy industry (although these comments are applicable to animal agriculture generally), successful marketing campaigns have convinced us that animal products are essential for good health, that their consumption is part of our national identity, and that instances of animal cruelty are few and safeguarded against.

These claims are incorrect. To quote from the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics’ position paper:

“It is the position of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics that appropriately planned vegetarian, including vegan, diets are healthful, nutritionally adequate, and may provide health benefits for the prevention and treatment of certain diseases. These diets are appropriate for all stages of the life cycle, including pregnancy, lactation, infancy, childhood, adolescence, older adulthood, and for athletes.”12

Humans need essential nutrients, including protein, iron and calcium, along with a variety of other vitamins and minerals.13 These nutrients are not synonymous with chicken, beef and milk. Reports of animal cruelty that make it to the mainstream media are not isolated incidents; they are reflective of systemic and institutionalised animal abuse.14

We do not need to use animals to live happy, healthful and fulfilled lives. The world of plant-based alternatives is extensive and growing. If animal welfare, environmental sustainability and human health issues matter to you, why not consider exploring these alternatives?

For further information on the dairy industry in Australia please read Voiceless's report, the Life of a Dairy Cow. 

Anna Wotherspoon is in her fourth year of study at Monash University in Melbourne, completing a law/science degree. She has been passionate about animal protection since her early teenage years. As a high school student, she contributing to the animal protection movement by writing letters to politicians and gathering petition signatures in support of bans to the live export and cage egg industries, among others. Now, Anna frequently volunteers with Animals Australia, and is the president of the Monash Vegan Society. She completed an internship with Voiceless in February this year.

LIKE THIS POST? BE THE FIRST TO KNOW ABOUT EVERYTHING WE'RE DOING BY SIGNING UP TO OUR NEWSLETTER HERE.