There’s a big debate around dairy right now. The global market is booming with dairy alternatives. The milk alternatives market alone is projected to hit 35 billion USD by 2026.
So what’s so wrong with milk and cheese? Here are 6 common reasons why vegans don’t drink milk or eat dairy:
- Separation of mother and calf soon after birth
- The short, sad, confined lives of cows
- The connection between dairy and veal
- Methane and greenhouse gases
- Harmful hormones in dairy products
- Saturated fat and heart disease risk
I’ll expand on each of these reasons below, so you get a clearer picture of how things have gone so horribly wrong with dairy… And why so many people are pushing for change.
1. Separation of Mother and Calf Soon After Birth
The meat industry is cruel to the animals and inhumane to the workers who slaughter them. That’s undeniable. But the dairy industry is arguably worse in at least one respect.
On a dairy farm, calves are separated from their mothers only a few weeks, days, or even hours after birth.
Why? Because like every baby animal (including humans), calves drink mother’s milk at birth. But dairy farmers don’t want milk “wasted” on calves because that cuts into their profits.
The typical cycle on a dairy farm goes like this:
- Step 1: Cow is artificially impregnated
- Step 2: Cow gives birth around 283 days later
- Step 3: Calf is separated from its mother from a few hours to a few weeks after birth
- Step 4: Mother cow is milked for 10 months
- Step 5: Her milk is sold in grocery stores and coffee shops
- Step 6: Mother cow is “dried off” (not milked) for 60 days
- Step 7: Mother cow is artificially impregnated and the cycle starts again
You don’t have to be a mother yourself (or even a woman) to recognize the horror of this routine process on a dairy farm.
I’ve written before about the grief experienced by mother cow and calf—both at the moment of separation, and for a long time after.
There are many videos out there, including the one below, that document how a calf is taken away. These videos are heartbreaking to watch.
The practices on the kill floor of a slaughterhouse are terrifying… but the trauma experienced by every mother and calf on a dairy farm are equally so. The difference is that mother and calf have to live that trauma over and over again.
2. The Short, Sad, Confined Lives of Cows
The repeated, predictable trauma that cows experience on a dairy farm is short-lived. While cows can naturally live into their 20s, dairy cows are sent to slaughter around age 3 or 4.
Why are dairy cows killed so young? Well… it’s time for a short history lesson.
In the second half of the 20th century, consumer demand for milk grew steeply. The dairy industry met this demand in several ways, including the selective breeding of Holstein-Friesian cows (their preferred breed) for ever higher milk yields.
But high yields aren’t sustainable for these cows. So as soon as their milk production starts to drop, which is usually after 3 cycles of birth/lactation, mother cows are sent to slaughter.
The Sad Life of a Dairy Cow
Before slaughter, the short life of a dairy cow is characterized by severe indoor confinement, constant risk of injury, and chronic pain.
Commercials that show “happy cows” frolicking in green fields couldn’t be further from the truth. In reality, dairy cows are kept indoors for most (if not all) of their lives.
In the best scenario, on farms that follow guidelines for humane care, cows may be given access to pasture in the spring and summer. This is more common in the UK than the US.
In the worst scenario, which is tragically more common, lactating cows are kept indoors year-round.
Indoors, dairy cows live in crowded group pens with concrete floors, or in solo “tie-stalls,” tethered for up to 24 hours a day.
In a tie stall, cows can be tethered with a rope or chain around their neck, or they can be confined with stanchions. In either case, tie-stalls restrict a cow’s movement in every way.
Tied up and alone, these cows are deprived of socialization, exercise and in many cases, the ability to even turn around or scratch themselves.
Injuries From Confinement
Chronic pain and injury are common due to this harsh housing. Hard concrete floors without bedding can cause lameness.
Cows also frequently slip and fall on excrement- and urine-soaked floors.
Holstein cows can weigh up to 1,700 lbs (when not pregnant). Think back to the last time you stood for a few hours on a hard surface without moving much. Now add about 1,500 lbs, a few years, and a few pregnancies.
Without proper bedding, a forgiving surface, and space to rest and defecate, a lactating cow will quickly develop problems with her feet and legs. This makes it harder to walk, carry the weight of pregnancy, and give birth.
The unsanitary conditions of a crowded dairy barn also puts cows at great risk of mastitis.
Mastitis is an infection of the udders, caused by bacteria on the ground or milking machines. It’s a painful condition at causes fever, chills, pain, and swelling.
In many cases, cows suffer even worse abuses at the hands of dairy farm workers. The below video captures undercover video of routine abuse at Fair Oaks Farms—the largest dairy farm in America.
This is not the only undercover investigation that has found dairy workers kicking, punching, and hitting cows on dairy farms.
3. The Connection Between Dairy and Veal
The veal industry is 100% dependent on the milk industry. Without the cycle of production on dairy farms, there would be no baby cows for veal producers.
Think again about that process of impregnating a mother cow and removing her calf shortly after birth. Where the calf goes after it’s taken away depends on its sex.
We’ve already covered the cruel, confined fate of female calves. When they turn 12-14 months old, they’ll be artificially impregnated and enter the milk production cycle.
Male calves don’t have the same value to the dairy industry as female cows because they cannot produce milk.
The Fate of Male Calves
Once they’re separated from their mothers, a very small percentage of male calves will remain on the dairy farm. Once they reach puberty, they’ll be used to breed with female cows.
The vast majority of male calves born on dairy farms have 1 of 2 fates. They will either be:
- Sold to a veal producer where they’re raised for 16-18 weeks until slaughter.
- Sold to a meat processor where they’re slaughtered immediately.
There are really no words to describe the perverse cruelty of transporting a baby cow directly to slaughter after being separated from its mother.
Industry calls these young calves that are taken directly to slaughter “bob veal.” They represent about 10% of the veal in American supermarkets.
The other 90% of veal produced in the US is called “formula-fed veal” (aka “milk-fed” or “special-fed”). That’s because the diet of a male calf on a veal farm is a liquid milk-replacement.
For their 16-18 weeks on a veal farm, calves are confined in very small (2 feet wide) crates, stalls or pens. With the exception of pens, which can house multiple calves, veal calves spend their short lives alone in a tiny space.
The cycle of milk production in the dairy industry drives the cycle of calf confinement and slaughter in the veal industry.
A resource on “Veal Calf Care” from the Ohio Dairy Industry Resources Center states this clearly: ”Veal calves are a small, but successful portion of the U.S. dairy industry.”
4. Methane and Greenhouse Gases
Greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide (CO2) and methane (CH4) are naturally occurring gases that, when released from the earth, keep our atmosphere warm.
When too much of these gases are released, the earth’s temperature rises and disrupts climates and weather patterns. Our modern, industrial society is releasing greenhouse gases at an unprecedented rate.
Animal agriculture contributes 6-7% of the US’s total greenhouse gas emissions every year. 20% of that emission is methane from dairy cows.
How Do Cows Emit Methane?
They burp! Cows are amazing ruminant animals. Ruminants have stomachs with 4 parts: reticulum, rumen, omasum and abomasum.
The rumen is the part of the stomach responsible for fermenting food with bacteria. And this fermentation in the rumen produces gas.
It’s important for cows to burp. Burping releases (methane) gas that would otherwise lead to bloat, which can be life threatening.
How can cow burps be impactful on a global scale? Well, one cow emits 70-120 kg of methane per year. And there are 250 million dairy cows in the world.
So just dairy cows alone—not even counting beef cattle, which are the majority of cattle worldwide—emit 17.5 to 30 billion kg of methane every year.
That’s more than 33 million metric tons of methane. To put that in perspective, that’s equal to how much carbon 7+ Million cars emit every year.
5. Harmful Hormones in Dairy Products
Since the early 2000s, there’s been a lot of chatter about the human health implications of eating dairy with added hormones. And indeed, many health-focused vegans avoid dairy because of these hormones.
Hormones are chemicals in your body that travel between tissues and organs. They’re messengers that work to affect a variety of physical and mental processes, including:
- Growth and development
How Can Hormones Harm Your Health?
It doesn’t take much for our hormones to get out of whack.
They’re powerful chemical communicators, and they can easily miscommunicate if there are too many or too few present.
A healthy human endocrine system produces and circulates about 50 different hormones. Each hormone and gland has its place in a carefully choreographed dance of chemical signals.
Your hormones keep your metabolism, sexual development, mood, and overall growth proceeding in a normal way.
As you age, some of these hormones and the glands that produce them can get signals mixed up, causing hormonal disorders such as hypothyroidism and Cushing’s Disease.
But there are environmental and lifestyle factors that can also cause hormonal imbalances.
Studies suggest that eating dairy products that contain steroid hormones “could be counted as an important risk factor for various cancers.”
How Do Hormones Get into Dairy Products?
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved 6 different types of hormones to be used in food production:
- Estradiol and progesterone (female sex hormones)
- Testosterone (a male sex hormone)
- Trenbolone acetate, zeranol, and melengestrol acetate (man-made hormones)
There are many reasons why factory farms use these hormones in meat and dairy production. However, all the reasons are intended to boost profits at the expense of the animal’s health.
There are also naturally-occuring hormones present in milk. This is because milk naturally transfers hormones from mother to calf.
On their own, and in the bodies of mother cow and her baby, these hormones aren’t dangerous. The problem comes when we eat dairy from cows that are kept in a constant state of pregnancy and lactation.
In those states, a cow’s levels of sex hormones are highly elevated. And those elevated levels of hormones are transferred to her milk, which humans drink.
Okay—one more hormone horror story: Recombinant bovine growth hormone (rBGH).
rBGH is a synthetic hormone that dairy producers give cows to boost milk production. Studies suggest that rBGH itself doesn’t harm humans…
However—and this is a big “however”—rBGH has been shown to increase the production of other hormones in humans, most notably insulin-like growth factor-1 (IGF-1). And studies link increased IGF-1 signals to tumor development throughout the body.
6. Saturated Fat and Heart Disease Risk
In addition to harmful hormones, there are other health reasons for why vegans don’t eat cheese or drink milk.
Dairy, especially cheese, is the largest source of saturated fat in the American diet. Saturated fat leads to increased levels of LDL cholesterol (aka “bad cholesterol”). High LDL is a major risk factor for heart disease.
The sequence goes like this:
Saturated fat from dairy —> Higher LDL cholesterol —> Higher risk of heart disease
A plant-based diet (or at least one that doesn’t include dairy) replaces saturated fat with monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats. And this is widely recommended by health authorities.
Doctors recommend that only 10% of your daily calories come from saturated fat.
In contrast, health authorities recommend eating monounsaturated fats like olive oil and avocados liberally. Monounsaturated fats keep LDL cholesterol low and raise “good” HDL cholesterol.
An easy way to identify saturated fat is if it’s solid at room temperature. For example, bacon fat contains a lot of saturated fat, and it’s solid at room temperature.
On the other hand, olive oil contains mostly monounsaturated fat, and you can enjoy dipping bread in it at room temperature.
About 1 in every 4 deaths in America every year is due to heart disease. That’s about 647,000 people who might have benefited from a diet with less saturated fat in the form of milk, eggs, and red meat.
One More Bonus Reason Not to Eat Dairy
There’s another big reason I’ve found to avoid dairy. It has nothing to do with ethics… but honestly, it would be a big enough reason for me personally to quit milk, even if none of the other reasons existed.
Here it is… Acne. Milk and dairy products are the most acne-causing foods you can possibly eat. Scientist William Danby once referred to milk as “‘nature’s perfect food’ for the creation of acne”!
Why? It has to do with insulin. The acne science gets a little confusing, but ask anyone who knows the literature. Dairy and sugar are the two biggest acne-causing foods.
If acne is something you struggle with, I highly recommend checking out this big blog post about my acne-clearing journey. I outlined all the diet-related factors and supplements that helped me finally restore balance on my skin.
That was a lot of information about why vegans don’t eat dairy or drink milk. Here are the biggest takeaways:
- Baby cows are separated from their mothers shortly after birth.
- Milk production relies on keeping cows pregnant and lactating year round.
- Most dairy cows are kept confined indoors for their short lives, with little socialization or exercise.
- The veal industry is 100% dependent on the dairy industry.
- About 10% of male calves are taken directly to be slaughtered almost immediately after birth.
- Dairy cows account for billions of tons of methane emissions every year.
- There are many hormones present in dairy that pose risks to long-term human health.
- Dairy products contain some of the highest levels of saturated fat.
- A diet of more than 10% saturated fat on a daily basis may significantly increase your risk of heart disease.
Two More Recommendations for Your Plant-Based Journey
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