Is it Ethical to Consume Dairy Products?

You don’t have to kill the cow to get it’s milk right? So, is it ethically wrong to consume dairy products? This is a dilemma I’ve been struggling with personally since my failed attempt at adopting a vegan diet a few years ago.

According to the RSPCA it is the sheer scale of commercial milk production that has led to some serious animal welfare problems in the dairy industry. While the number of dairy farms in Australia has halved over the last 20 years, farms are becoming larger and more intensive. This means more cows in a smaller space and an increased demand on cows to produce more milk. Cows are kept in an almost perpetual state of pregnancy and lactation and as a result of this intensive production system, are susceptible to infections of the teat and udder (mastitis) and foot problems (e.g. laminitis), which can cause significant pain and discomfort.

Cows are also subjected to painful procedures such as dehorning/disbudding and tail docking, which are performed without anaesthesia. Once a cow is no longer able to calve or produce sufficient quantities of milk, it is sent to slaughter, usually at around 6-7 years of age. A cow’s natural life-span, however, is 20-25 years.

Then there is the issue of bobby calves, the offspring of cows on dairy farms, which are sadly considered a waste product of the industry. Once a cow gives birth her calf is removed within 12 hours, which is a stressful process for both the cow and the calf. Some of these bobby calves are reared for veal production, while about one quarter of the heifer calves (females) will become replacements for adult milk-producing cows. The rest, around 400,000 calves per year in Australia, are sent to slaughter once they are 5 days old.

So is there a more ethical alternative to conventional dairy products? The only alternative to conventional dairy farming in Australia at the present time is the organic/biodynamic dairy industry. While cows on organic/biodynamic dairy farms are still expected to give birth annually and the fate of bobby calves is the same, the organic/biodynamic standards specify that:

o   Cows must have continuous access to pasture and cannot be confined indoors in sheds

o   Dehorning/disbudding is only permitted with anaesthetic

o   Tail docking is prohibited

o   Live exports are prohibited

There are a whole bunch of small-scale, family-run organic dairy farms operating throughout Australia practising less intensive, more traditional methods of dairy farming. Nowadays you can find some organic dairy products at the supermarket or otherwise you can find them at your local farmer’s market or organic grocer. Also, check out the Alt.Milk Directory to find out where to buy milk and dairy products produced locally, from family-owned operations using ethical and sustainable practices (http://flavourcrusader.com/blog/2011/03/family-dairy-milk-organic/).

There is one organic dairy company, Elgaar Farm in Tasmania, taking ethical dairy farming to a whole new level. As a certified organic dairy farm they follow the organic standards, but it is their treatment of dairy cows no longer fit for milking duties that really sets them apart. Instead of sending these cows to the abattoir, the cows spend the rest of their natural lives grazing in a paddock. One of their cows lived to the ripe old age 38! Also, bobby calves are not separated from their mothers at birth but instead are allowed to suckle for 2-4 months. Male calves are then either raised for beef on a nearby farm or kept as replacement bulls.

Unfortunately, due to demand outstripping supply for their products, Elgaar Farm products are currently only available in Tasmania. They are working on expanding their manufacturing facilities and with any luck their products will be available throughout Australia again soon.

In a future post we will be discussing the health pros and cons of consuming dairy products and the range of dairy alternatives now available. In the meantime, as always, please remember to consume with care!


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