While most people could eventually come around to the idea that meat consumption is too high and unsustainable, another argument arises that milk and eggs are natural resources from animals without them needing to die. Milk, in particular, is marketed heavily that it is vital to human health. With all the media hype for milk, why do vegans refuse it?
How do cows produce milk year round?
Dairy farming has been part of agriculture for thousands of years. Modern dairy cows are bred specifically to produce large quantities of milk. Like humans, cows only produce milk after they have given birth, and dairy cows must give birth to one calf per year in order to continue producing milk. Typically they are artificially inseminated within three months of giving birth.
In commercial dairy farming, nearly all calves are taken away from their mother shortly after birth. This causes severe distress to both the cow and her calf, and has long-term effects on the calf’s physical and social development. High-yielding cows produce calves who are generally not suited to beef production and are separated from their babies in less than an hour after birth and then transported to auction houses where they are sold as veal calves. Female calves are transported to feeding farms in order to quickly gain the weight of an adult in less than a year, then sold as dairy cows. Calves are vulnerable at this age and are not ready to cope with the stress of long-distance transport.
In the UK, as a result of extensive cooperation between Compassion in World Farming, the RSPCA, and the dairy industry (through the Calf Stakeholder Forum), more male dairy calves are now reared humanely for beef and the number of calves being shot at birth has greatly decreased. There is more work to do, however. Approximately 100,000 calves are still shot every year.
These high-production cows produce milk on average for less than three years, after which they are culled and their meat used for beef.
Over the last fifty years, dairy farming has become more intensive in order to increase the amount of milk produced by each cow. The Holstein-Friesian, the type of dairy cow most common in the US has been bred to produce large amounts of milk. Milk production per cow has more than doubled in the past 50 years. In the US, the average dairy cow produces more than seven gallons of milk per day. If she was producing just enough to feed her calf, a dairy cow would only produce about one gallon of milk per day.
The majority of dairy cows in the US are kept without access to pasture for most of their lives. This is known as “zero grazing,” and is practiced increasingly in large-scale operations in North America and parts of the UKin order to keep milk production as high as possible. In operations where they do not have access to pasture, cows are often housed in sheds. Some sheds have outdoor yards an around 20% of US dairy cows are housed in tie-stall systems.
The average lifespan of a dairy cow is four to five years until they stop producing milk where they are sold and transported long distances for meat. The average life span of a domesticated cow not used in food production is 25 years.
But don’t workers try to keep the cows healthy?
Given a natural and healthy life, cows can live for 20 years or more. High-yielding dairy cows will last for only a quarter of that time. They are often culled after three lactations or less because they are chronically lame or infertile.
Milk is heavy and a dairy cow may be carrying several extra pounds of milk in her udders. This can force her hind legs into an unnatural position, making it difficult to walk, and can result in lameness. It can also make standing and lying down difficult and uncomfortable.
Mastitis is a painful udder infection that is prevalent among dairy cows. 16.5 percent of deaths of dairy cows in the US are attributed to mastitis, which is more commonly reported than any other health problem in the dairy industry. Housing cows indoors for long periods can increase the prevalence of mastitis.
Infertility among high-yielding dairy cows is a major problem affecting 13 per cent of US dairy cows, commonly leading to cows being removed from the herd. It has been linked to stress, poor body condition, and the demands of high milk production.
Cows kept indoors have less opportunity to act naturally and exercise. Poor ventilation and high humidity increase the risk and spread of infection. These factors are likely to have an adverse effect on their health and welfare. In many old-fashioned systems, cows are kept in tie-stalls and stanchion barns which are even more confining. Here cows are tied up for all or part of the day when they are housed.
Hard concrete flooring can cause foot damage and is especially painful for lame cows. Zero-grazing systems, in which cows are housed year-round, have been linked to increased lameness among dairy cows.
The diet of high-yielding cows often has relatively little fibrous content and is inappropriate for their type of digestive system. This leads to acidity in the part of the stomach known as the “rumen,” and can cause acidosis and painful lameness from laminitis (hoof tissue inflammation).
Milk’s effect on people
Approximately 65 percent of the human population has a reduced ability to digest lactose after infancy. Lactose intolerance in adulthood is most prevalent in people of East Asian descent, affecting more than 90 percent of adults in some of these communities. Lactose intolerance is also very common in people of West African, Arab, Jewish, Greek, and Italian descent. The condition is least common among Americans of European descent where dependency on dairy products remains strong.
Lactose intolerance is an impaired ability to digest lactose, a sugar found in milk and other dairy products. Lactose is normally broken down by an enzyme called lactase, which is produced by cells in the lining of the small intestine. Intolerance increases with age after 2 years, bringing up the argument that human adults are not meant to be dependent on dairy.
Severe symptoms range from abdominal spasms, nausea, vomiting, gas, and bloating. However, there has been a slow increase in people will mild symptoms, including mild nausea within two hours after consuming dairy, chronic acne breakouts, frequent colds and congestion, water retention, and general fatigue. Symptoms can be alleviated as soon as two months after switching to non-dairy substitutes.
Experts at the Harvard School of Public Health have labeled the milk recommendations a “step in the wrong direction.” One the most prominent critics is Walter Willett, MD, PhD, professor of epidemiology and head of the nutrition department at the Harvard School of Public Health. “One of the main arguments for USDA recommendations is that drinking milk or equivalent dairy products will reduce the risk of fractures. But in fact there’s very little evidence that milk consumption is associated with reduced fractures.”
Indeed, countries in which almost no milk is consumed, such as many Asian countries, have low rates of fractures. It’s true that milk is a good source of potassium, but the levels used for the USDA recommendations are much higher than they need to be to prevent hypertension, “We’re much better off advising people to consume less salt,” he says.
As beverages go, milk is relatively high in calories. One cup of 2% milk has 138 calories, for instance. Drinking three cups a day adds 366 calories to the diet which is roughly the size of a small meal.
But Willett’s chief worry is that drinking too much milk may pose dangers. “By now there’s quite a body of data showing a higher risk of fatal prostate cancer associated with milk,” he tells WebMD. “And though the evidence is somewhat mixed, we’ve still seen a slightly higher risk of ovarian cancer associated with drinking three or more servings of milk.”
American dairy farms are still a long ways away from creating an environment that is sustainable not only for the cows, but for human health as well. Milk is a high calorie, high salt product that has shown signs of increasing types of cancer. While it does contain nutrients essential for healthy bones, it in no way reduces likelihood of fractures and other claimed fortification benefits.
Other than the exaggerated health benefits, dairy farms are not beneficial or compassionate towards dairy cows. Many could argue that common, accepted practices are downright cruel. But this is only the tip of the ice burg. New marketing campaigns for organic, antibiotic free milks are taking over the grocery shelves in response to America’s lot to become more healthy. But is it as healthy as what we’ve been lead to believe. That’s an article for another time.