Milk, whether derived from goat, sheep or cattle we see it in virtually everything we eat. Pastries, potato chips, bath products, medications and even buttons contain some form of dairy ingredients. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture the average person today drinks about 18 gallons a year, almost half of what was being consumed in the 1970s. While numbers have dropped over the decades, dairy remains one of the most important products in our everyday lives. It travels hundreds of miles across states to be processed, bottled, and shipped to various locations. Most of these locations include supermarkets, gas stations, schools and finally our refrigerators. Just how did milk become so popular in our society? And why do we still consider it a staple despite of all the surrounding controversy?
A Brief History of Milk
It is believed that the consumption of milk may have dated as far as 10,000 BCE when nomadic life shifted to a more sedentary lifestyle. This period is known as the agricultural revolution. During this era the settled communities began to practice the domestication of plants and animals, including cattle. In ancient Egypt dairy products were only consumed by people of greater status such as priests, royalty and wealthy individuals. By the 5th century, both sheep and cow’s milk, with cow’s milk being the primary choice, became widely available in western Europe. Starting in the 1800s, when people began to move from farms to cities, America began to see milk trains hauling dairy from the countryside. Prior to that, milk was not considered a reliable source of nutrition. Generally, milk was only given to children, and rather odd for anyone else to be drinking it. However, major scandals in New York broke loose in 1850 after thousands of babies died from drinking swill milk - milk originating from sickly cows being fed residual mash from nearby distilleries (Greenwood 2015). While it appeared like a definite end for the dairy farmers, a political bargain was born. The demand for safe milk enabled industries to ensure the public of what nutritionists were calling a protective food and promised farmers a vibrant economy. The huge push for cow’s milk finally went through around the same period. Many nutritionists and doctors like John Harvey Kellogg, doctor and inventor of the corn flake, endorsed the idea that giving the purest and simplest foods to the ill would improve their health (Greenwood 2015). Milk just seemed like the perfect whole food candidate because of its fat, carbohydrates and protein content, all of which are necessary for the human body. This was good news for suffering farmers who had a surplus of the liquid goodness. Even moreso now that the agriculture community, the scientific community and governments were beginning to espouse the benefits of milk consumption. There is less agreement now, but it is still clear just how influential this was around the entire globe.
As children we were always told that milk is good for our teeth and bones, and that we better “drink up” if we want to grow up healthy and strong. Years later that same attitude is still present in our society today. No matter how many times we have been inspired by ‘x’ celebrity to serve ourselves a nice tall glass of milk or how clever and catchy we thought those slogans were, we seldom realize how little information is given regarding the serious health implications linked with milk consumption. Do we really need milk anyway? Well it turns out it may not be the case. A study published by the American Diabetes Association found that children who were exposed to breastfeeding for a shorter period and consumed cow’s milk much earlier experienced a higher chance of developing IDDM, or type 1 diabetes. There is also no association in bone fracture reduction, as is commonly claimed. In the contrary, a long-term study done in Sweden revealed that drinking three or more glasses per day may actually increase the risk of bone fractures and even early death (Michaëlsson et al. 2014). That was the equivalent amount being recommended to Americans by the mid-20th century. However, others may still argue that milk remains an important source for people who struggle with obtaining proper nutrition. Generally, calcium, potassium, and protein can also be found in greater amounts in foods like broccoli, kale, and black beans. Unfortunately, they are no match when competing against dairy. They do not have trade groups giving millions to members of Congress and lobbying for influence over the nation's nutrition policy.
Environmental impacts of dairy
Dairy farms are often portrayed as large beautiful barns with stretches of pasture where cows and their calves roam freely. Maybe that was true in earlier years of milk production when it was only produced for the local community. But when the surging demands for cow’s milk began to take hold, farmers had one of two options: leave behind their business or develop their beloved family farms into full blown industrial farms. A host of environmental concerns have stemmed from the “go big or go home” mentality. The various environmental impacts, and the scale of these impacts really depends on the practices of the dairy farmers and feed growers. A study done in Nova Scotia compared the environmental ramifications of the dairy industry between the typical confined industrial farms we see versus the open pasture system. It was found that the grazing system had little effect on overall environmental impact, while the more industrialized system had marginally greater contributions to: ozone layer depletion, human toxicity, freshwater ecotoxicity, photochemical oxidation, acidiﬁcation and eutrophication (Arsenault et al. 2011). Although the systems perform quite similarly with respect to cumulative energy demand, the pasture system results in a slightly larger potential contribution to abiotic resource depletion and land use (Arsenault et al. 2011). One other factor that may be overlooked is the fact that we are now feeding cows with grains such as corn and soy. Both these crops require vasts amounts of land, synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, and water. Consequently, we destroy many habitats essential for the survival of many species and disrupt various natural systems. Not only do we jeopardize the stability of biodiversity, we are also compromising the free ecosystem services we so highly depend on. In both cases we are polluting water systems such as oceans, rivers, and potentially our drinking water with the chemicals and nitrogenous waste. Some places like the San Joaquin Valley in California, infamous for their industrial dairy farms, are already experiencing safety concerns with their drinking water (Gardiner 2015). Residents state that they are burdened from the world’s taste for milk, cheese and yogurt, in the form of tainted water, pungent odors, flies and fumes that concentrate in addition to the region’s severe air pollution. Locals complain of headaches and migraines, and refuse to let their children play outside because it’s just that bad. According to the American Lung Association the San Joaquin Valley region suffers the highest levels of airborne pollution particles that are associated with illnesses like heart attacks and strokes. It is largely due to heavy truck traffic and the dairy and feed processing facilities (Gardiner 2015).
Ethics: animal welfare
There’s been a growing concern among the public and animal welfare activists regarding what truly goes on behind closed doors of these facilities. We’ve been seeing more documentaries and photographs circle the internet that reveal the unsanitary, crowded conditions animals must live in. Often, they're seen being mistreated and abused by workers. Dairy cows and their calves experience a lot of stress during gestation. Days after giving birth their calves are wheeled off and separated from their mothers, something the Food and Agriculture Organization calls the weaning period. Weaning is supposed to maximize the amount of product made available for human consumption which would otherwise be given to calves. In most cases male calves are separated out to supply the veal industry. He is usually confined in a small, solitary stall for 16 to 18 weeks until slaughter. They are deprived from physical and mental stimulation that aids in their development, are fed only a compromised liquid diet, and are purposefully kept weak to yield tender, pale meat. There is little financial incentive to improve veal calf welfare, as the pale meat favored by many comes not from healthy calves but rather weak and malnourished claves. “High-welfare” veal is simply not possible to produce. The Thünen Institute of Organic Farming in Germany examined more closely about the possible effects of calf and mother separation. Using differently reared cows, they divided the animals into one of two categories: one in which they were separated from having contact with their mothers or two where they had regular contact with either their mothers or other cows, or both. The scientists conducted different tests to determine whether the different rearing strategies had a long-term effect on the behavior of the animals in stress situations. They found the calves who had maternal contact or contact with the herd experienced less stress and were more active during isolation (University of Veterinary Medicine 2015). Although morality of weaning is controversial, this study demonstrated how allowing animals to have regular contact gives rise to adults with higher social competence. Dairy cows today are being genetically selected to produce up to 12 times the amount of milk needed to feed her calf. Producers have maximized productivity at the expense of cows’ well-being. Producing such vast quantities of milk in one lactation cycle is overwhelming and stressful that dairy cows are typically kept only for three or four years (or three cycles of pregnancy, birth and lactation) before they are slaughtered. More studies have shown up over the last couple of years in efforts to expose the reality of this industry and hope for stricter regulations. It’s been difficult for scientists to publicly report their findings when the dairy and agricultural industries supported by the government deliberately produce studies saying otherwise, even when public health is a concern. Like most good scientists, the researchers not associated with these sectors conduct unbiased studies that are largely quantifiable, but serve as an interpretation to gauge environmental and animal welfare concerns.
This certainly raises the question of whether it is morally right to continue to exploit these animals for our commodities. Or if it’s okay to destroy the environment and ignore the people who suffer from this practice simply because we wish to please our palates. Milk alongside with fossil fuels, meat, and corn depend on government subsidies to keep prices consumer-friendly and allow the industry to compete in the market. If not for people’s tax dollars they would not be able to relentlessly poison our waters, destroy the land, and make people sick. The choice is ours essentially. Whether we choose to support big businesses with our hard-earned dollars or begin to inform ourselves and make better choices for our well-being, our family's, or the planet’s ultimately we are in control of our own personal lives. It is essential to keep in mind how our individual actions big or small, positive or negative, all play part in the greater aspect of the world. That being said, we must maintain hope and work together as a global community if we wish to change the trajectory of our planet.
Work Cited F.X. Milani, D.Nutter, and G.Thoma. Environmental impacts of dairy processing and products: A review. Journal of Dairy Science Volume 94, Issue 9, September 2011, Pages 4243-4254
Gardiner, Beth. “How Growth in Dairy Is Affecting the Environment”. New York times, 1 May 2015.
Greenwood, Veronique. “How did milk become a staple food?” BBC, 6 July 2015.
Michaëlsson Karl, Wolk Alicja, Langenskiöld Sophie, Basu Samar, Warensjö Lemming Eva, Melhus Håkan et al. Milk intake and risk of mortality and fractures in women and men: cohort studies BMJ 2014; 349 :g6015
N. Arsenault, P. Tyedmers, and A. Fredeen. Comparing the environmental impacts of pasture-based and confinement-based dairy systems in Nova Scotia (Canada) using life cycle assessment. International Journal Of Agricultural Sustainability 7(1) 2009, Pages 19–41
University of Veterinary Medicine, Vienna. Early separation of cow and calf has long-term effects on social behavior. ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 28 April 2015. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2015/04/150428081801.htm>.