Words by Emma Hawkes. Emma is a Postgraduate student studying International Animal Welfare, Ethics and Law. She loves travelling and learning more about climate change. You can find her on Instagram @emmahawkesx.
A few weeks ago, I did a blog post dedicated to Veganuary with my top tips for those trying the lifestyle for the first time as well as helpful recipes. I touched on the fact that a plant-based diet can be extremely beneficial to a person’s health, the environment, and preventing the unnecessary suffering of animals. Clearly, Veganuary has had a positive impact, with a 40% increase in veganism in the UK being recorded during 2020 - 445,428 people to be exact - and over half a million Brits taking part in Veganuary this year according to their official Instagram. But despite its successes, today I find myself writing about another food campaign, only one that is spreading a very different message: FebruDairy.
Launched in 2018, at first the campaign consisted mainly of hashtags on social media and a Twitter account that had 1,700 followers. February aimed to do two things: firstly, it was an attempt to show consumers that dairy farming practices can vary, and that not all dairy farms operate in intensive farming ways. Secondly, FebruDairy aimed to show the positive effects of drinking cow’s milk. As we will see however, these are all things which, while buoyed by effective marketing campaigns, are not based on the truth.
Is there such a thing as ‘ethical’ dairy farming?
The first issue to look into is people claiming that not all dairy farms operate using intensive and exploiting practices. The fact of the matter is that all of these animals will still end up being slaughtered for meat once they cannot produce any more milk: most cows are not permitted to live longer than 5 years, though their natural life span is between 15 and 20. Whether or not the animals involved in 'more ethical' practices are cared for to a greater degree, them being killed for meat consumption adds to the cruel cycle of animal farming, keeping its place on the greenhouse gas leaderboard as the largest contributor to global warming.
Now, I am not saying that some dairy farms aren’t more conscious about animal welfare than others - their animals may live a good life compared to those where they are intensively farmed. And, of course, whether or not people think these practices are ethical will vary between individuals. For example, an animal rights advocate may argue that no animals should be used for human consumption and would see any dairy farming practice as wrong regardless of supposed welfare practices.
Dairy Farming and Animal Welfare
Marketing campaigns like FebruDairy encourage consumers to support the industry and dairy farmers, though they will choose to leave out certain facts that may discourage people from buying consumer products (though vegan activists have been quick to co-opt the FebruDairy social campaign by filling in these gaps). Before I started transitioning to veganism, I was vegetarian for a couple of years. This means that I, too, fell victim to believing it was okay to consume dairy products because the cows are not killed for meat. Let’s just say my habits very quickly changed when I found out this was not the case. The only way female cows are able to produce milk is by getting pregnant, exactly like humans. This means that cows endure vicious cycles of getting impregnated and their bodies overworked just to produce milk to meet the demand for human consumption. When cows can no longer produce milk, they are sent to slaughterhouses as they are no longer deemed useful.
Dairy Farming and the Environment
As consumers today, we are so disconnected from what happens in animal agriculture that it can be difficult to link that pint of milk to the destructive relationship between dairy farming and the environment.
Firstly, dairy farms require a lot of water usage to run day-to-day operations. Water is needed to produce beef and, as I found out to my own surprise recently, it takes about a 1,000 litres of water to produce one litre of milk (and about 15,000 per kilogram of beef). On top of this, cows can drink up to 150 litres of water a day which, considering there are over 94 million dairy cows today, adds up to a lot of unnecessary water use.
Cows also produce loads of environmentally harmful waste. Just one cow can produce up to 37 kilograms of waste per day. If this waste is not properly taken care of, it emits harmful gases into the atmosphere and can leak into local ecosystems. The USDA has said that just 200 cows can emit the same amount of nitrogen as the sewage waste from a community of 10,000 people.
It has also been recently discovered that dairy farms can also cause health issues for local residents, as dust kicked up by the animals creates a cloud that can stretch for several miles: many farmers have been known to suffer from respiratory issues as a result.
Before I wrap up this blog, I would love for readers to really start to think critically about the food campaigns that they come across as consumers. Marketing strategies can be incredibly powerful in affecting what we choose to buy: and not always with positive ethical or environmental outcomes. As consumers it is vital to make the connection between our food choices and the impact they have on our planet as well as the welfare of animals across the world.
Ask yourselves these questions:
Does knowing the impact dairy farming has on the environment make you rethink your consumer choices?
Would knowing this make you want to do more research about where your food comes from?
Might this motivate you to make different consumer choices? For example, moving to a more plant-based diet or sourcing food locally.