So why do we persist in cutting meat out of diets first, rather than dairy, when faced with environmental and ethical questions?
It is interesting that the first reaction to livestock abuse and the environmental impact of concentrated animal farming operations is to go vegetarian. Cutting meat out of one’s diet is seen as the logical reaction to these injustices; and yet, increasing numbers of articles, photographs, and video footage from industrial farms suggest that dairy, allowed in vegetarian diets, raises far more ethical red flags than even meat.
An animal raised for meat is raised just for that; its life is short and horrible, but it serves no other purpose than to be turned into meat at slaughter. A dairy cow, on the other hand, is repeatedly impregnated, separated from her newborn calves, and forced to carry excessive amounts of milk in her sensitive udder. At the end of her much-shortened life span (five years instead of 25), she is also slaughtered for meat.
The Guardian’s outspoken vegan columnist Chas Newkey-Burden wrote a scathing and disturbing criticism of the dairy industry, to which he refers as “the darkest part of farming.” Mother cows are attached to their calves, but these are removed within 36 hours of birth. Following the separation, a mother will bellow and call for her baby for days, wondering where her baby is:
“The answer depends on the gender of the calf. If male, he will probably either be shot and tossed into a bin, or sold to be raised for veal, which delays his death by just a matter of months. But if the calf is female, she will usually be prepared for her own entry into dairy production, where she will face the same cycle of hell that her mother is trapped in.”
Newkey-Burden explains that cows’ udders are meant to hold only 2 liters (0.5 gal) of milk, but farmers force them to carry ten times that – sometimes more than 20 L (5.3 gal). Over time, the cows become lame, crippled by the weight of their udders, and suffer from mastitis, a painful infection to which many nursing humans can relate with a shiver. A highly disturbing YouTube video called “Dairy is F**king Scary: The Dairy Industry Explained in 5 Minutes” shows pictures of bloody teats and explains that low quantities of both blood and pus exist in filtered milk.
George Monbiot shares this pessimistic view, stating that dairy is the biggest agriculture problem that we do not wish to see: “Imagine how we would respond if this were any other industrial sector. If rivers like the Culm [in Britain] were frequently trashed by toxic sludge from factories, there would be an outcry.” When it comes to dairy, however, we turn a blind eye because acknowledging it would force us to change our habits.
Farming is the only industry in which severe pollution incidents are on the rise, and of these, dairy is the biggest culprit. A report from 2014 by the UK government says that, out of 87 farming-related pollution incidents, 36 occurred on dairy farms. The majority were “containment and control failures,” which means that these farms are dirtying the environment while also inflicting horrific cruelty on animals.
David Katz, director of the Yale University Prevention Research Center, argues that we have to make important ethical choices around food. He wrote in an essay for The Reducetarian Solution:
“We may reasonably decide that any dietary choice that places on the menu the perpetration of cruelty upon our fellow species is toxic. We may reasonably decide that any dietary choice unsustainable by more than 7 billion Homo sapiens is now, in that context, toxic.”
This is what Monbiot, Newkey-Burden, and probably countless cows would have us believe, too. With so many delicious dairy-free alternatives now widely available, it’s easier than ever to go without dairy-based cheese, lattes, and ice cream, and leave the milk for the baby calves, many of which won't even need to be born.