Friday, January 12, 2007

Milk is gross

There are a lot of myths surrounding the healthfulness and ethics of human consumption of dairy products. I have been doing some reading and research, and my goal with this post is to dispel some of those myths. To the best of my ability, I will document all the sources for my information; however, as I have done a lot of reading about these issues in recent months, the list is likely not comprehensive. Research on the subject abounds--do some reading yourself!

Myth 1: Milk does a body good.

Cows are herbivores, and thrive on a diet of grasses. The pastoral dairies we often picture in our minds include black-and-white spotted cows, dotting the rolling green hillsides, lazily grazing on the pastureland and ruminating. The farmer comes out with a tin bucket and a little wooden stool and lovingly milks his cows each day, stroking them and talking to them all the while.

This is not a true reflection of the life and diet of a modern-day, factory-farmed cow. Cows in factory farming operations are confined to stalls and hard cement floors, never given the freedom to graze. They are deprived of a natural diet and instead fed a feed mix consisting heavily of corn (most of it genetically modified), heavy doses of antibiotics, and occasionally the ground-up remains of their fallen comrades (the practice of turning dead cattle back into cattle feed is illegal, but the industry is poorly monitored and this practice still occurs). We all know that animal milk nutrition is based of the nutrients in the diet of the animal that produces it. So what is going into your milk? Genetically modified corn that was farmed with heavy doses of chemical fertilizers; antibiotics; any contaminants that may have remained in the bodies of the dead cows that were ground up for feed.

It gets worse, though. Dairy cows are pumped full of rBGH, a bovine growth hormone designed to increase their milk yield. The increased milk yield resulting from the rBGH causes increased rates of mastitis--the udders of these unfortunate cows swell and become infected with the unnatural volume of milk that they produce. Yet, in the interest of precious time and profit, cows with infected udders are not treated properly for their infection--they are still milked continually. The antibiotics pumped into the cattle feed are intended to deal with such diseases and infection, the intent being that these maladies will get cleared up through the feed and the cow loses no milking time. As a result of not treating mastitis immediately and properly, pus which develops inside the udder ends up in the milk. This pus-infused milk is not discarded; rather, it is mixed with "healthy" milk, packaged, and sold.

Myth 2: Cows need to be milked.

It is true that when cows produce milk, it is healthy for them to be milked and relieved of the pressure that builds up in their udders under the weight of the milk. However, what is not good for cows in these factory farm operations is the extent of their milk production and their milking. These cows are constantly being impregnated, giving birth and then immediately having their calves taken from them, and milked extensively. This ensures that not a moment of precious time escapes when the cow could have been giving profitable milk.

A dairy cow which is allowed to live its natural life, grazing in the outdoors and lactating in natural cycles, should live for 20 years or more. Cows using modern farming methods, however, are often slaughtered once their milk production slows, in as few as three lactation cycles. Modern milking practices, then, scarcely bode well for these animals.

Myth 3: Milk is a good source of calcium and protein.

Our bodies need calcium. Calcium is extremely important in our bone development; without proper levels of calcium intake, we are at risk for the ever more widespread bone disease known as osteoporosis, which makes bones brittle and fragile. America is well aware of these risks, and in fact recommended daily intakes of calcium in the U.S. are some of the highest in the world, at 1,000-1,400 milligrams each day. Yet Americans still are at high risk for osteoporosis. Why?

Calcium is a mineral that neutralizes acid. Our blood has a certain pH level that it must maintain, which is a fairly neutral level that slightly leans to the alkaline end of the spectrum. But certain foods are known to raise the acidity level of the blood--namely, animal proteins and highly processed "junk" foods. Our bodies must produce increased amounts of acid to digest such foods, and once the digestion has occurred, the acid enters our blood supply and makes it more acidic. Thus, our bodies actually leach calcium from our bones to neutralize the acid content in our blood.

So, yes. Milk is a substantive source of both calcium and protein. But when we rely on the protein in milk and other animal products, we actually lose much of the calcium that we take in.

Consider that many peoples have survived for hundreds of years without dairy products, such as the Chinese, and have had little instance of osteoporosis. People in these places take in far less calcium than most Americans do today, but they get their calcium and their protein vastly from plant-based sources. Consider also that vegetarian women, at age 65, average 18% bone loss, while their omnivorous peers average 35% bone loss.

Myth 4: Beef production is cruel, but dairy production is not.

I have already addressed this to some extent above, but there is room for elaboration.

Dairy cows, as I mentioned, are not allowed to graze in conventional farming operations; they are confined, fed meal that is far from their natural diet, and often never see the outdoors. They live but a fraction of their natural lives before being sent to slaughter, once their productivity has declined due to the exhausting methods of milk production that factory farmers implement. During the time when they are alive, disease is rampant among milk-producing cattle because they are confined in such closed, tight living areas where disease can spread easily from one animal to the next, and are fed such enormous levels of antibiotics that antibiotic-resistant strains of the bacteria are constantly evolving--thus increasing the need for more antibiotics, thus perpetuating the cycle.

When a dairy cow gives birth, the calf is immediately separated from the mother, often never even allowed to nurse. Female calves are raised to produce milk, but male calves are considered useless by-products of the dairy industry. They are often sold cheaply into veal production--one of the most horrifying aspects of animal agriculture. Veal calves are confined to crates where they have no room to move, and they are often chained by the neck to further restrict their movement. This is what gives veal meat its characteristic tenderness. The calves are fed an iron-deficient diet so that their meat is pale and desirable; often they become so weak that their legs break beneath their own weight. Then, after 16 weeks of this kind of life, the calves are slaughtered.

"Certified organic" milk, to an extent, helps to alleviate some of these problems, but by no means solves them. Cows whose milk is certified organic must not be fed antibiotics or injected with hormones, and they must be given access to pasture for a part of the year. For large-scale organic dairy producers, this means giving the animals a minimal amount of time in the pasture, and using more conventional methods as much as they can to keep costs low. And even in the organic industry, cows may be sent to slaughter prematurely when they slow down their production. Even in the organic industry, male calves may be sold into the horrible veal industry. For most corporate producers, the animal is still a commodity rather than a living being, and they will do as little as they can to get the lucrative "organic" label slapped onto their products. So unless you personally know your dairy farmer and his commitment to earth- and animal-friendly, sustainable production, unless you know he is concerned for the well-being of his animals, then you cannot be certain that the industry you are supporting is not guilty of the mistreatment of millions of animals each year.

For more reading, follow these links:

Dangers of Milk.
rBGH on Wikipedia.
The Welfare of Cattle in Dairy Production.
Veal Production.
Issues: Organic.


KleoPatra said...

Oh, this was so true, all of it... thanks, Laura.

Anonymous said...

Although I whole-heartedly agree that the commercial dairy farms across America are cruel and treat their animals as objects rather than beings, I still believe that cows play a valuable role in human life. Consider the sustainable farm: Cows are turned out on grass to feed and are only kept indoors when the weather is too harsh. When they calf, excess milk is taken by humans. She (the cow) feeds naturally, is treated naturally, and in turn gives back to the more way than one. All year round cows will be producing lovely manure, and since they are being fed a natural diet, manure is hormone free. On sustainable farms, manure is a very crucial factor in the success of crops. For those who believe a farm, or even a garden, can be successful without the inputs and outputs of a cow- good luck. The first few years that a crop is harvested, you may see good results. However, once the nutrients in the soil are depleted year after year, your crops will be less and less successful. Manure is a wonderful, natural, and cost-free way to fertilize crops. And with the milk you obtain from the cow, your family needn't worry about buying any dairy. A single family dairy cow will produce plenty of milk for the likes of butter, cheese, milk, cream, and more, and without being strained. Indeed, the sustainable farm with a dairy cow is one way to get people away from supporting large corporations. If more of us operated on the self-sufficient level, we could work in a more positive direction in putting big businesses out of business...and we'd be benefiting too! In fact this plan of self-sufficiency would better work than the boycott agenda of most vegetarians, we would put them out of business faster!

Anonymous said...

Kate, I would like to emphasize the humans do not need milk to survive. And I think that was the original intent of this post - milk is intended for baby cows, not adult humans. Enough said.