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A.K.A. The Harsh Reality of Dairy and Egg Farming
For the purposes of reasonable scope, I will assume you already agree that killing animals for food is ethically wrong, which is why you decided not to eat meat anymore.
If that is not the case, I would invite you to read [this (upcoming) article on why buying (farmed) meat is always unethical] first.
An Ethical Equivalency Between Cheese and Veal
If you used to love meat, but always made it a point to buy organic, free range meat from “animal friendly” farms, then at one point realized how wrong it is to systematically kill these feeling beings at such a young age, not to mention the weight of the betrayal of trust the animals had towards the farmer, and from that point on could no longer trick your conscience into letting you eat meat and thus became a vegetarian, then you are now in the same position I found myself in roughly two years ago.
I actually left out the middle stage, where I convinced myself that buying meat on the day it expires and rescuing it from the dumpster was an ethical loophole. Ultimately, though, the sales statistics don’t care about the reasons for buying the meat and simply register the demand.
Of course I missed meat, especially bacon, but while it pained me too much to further contribute to these acts of coldhearted hedonism, I was still blissfully unaware of some key facts about dairy and egg production. So I continued to gorge on delicious raclette, fondue, simple cheese sandwiches (I live in Switzerland, by the way), eggs, and mayo and/or grated gruyere on everything (I love mayo, but the good old fashioned kind that consists of egg yolks, vinegar, and a tiny bit of mustard. Not that disgusting, sweet salad mayo crap).
Fact #1: Cows have to give birth annually to keep producing milk.
Even though the dairy industry surely doesn’t want you to know about this fact (and especially its consequences; see below), it’s not exactly a big secret. It’s just something that isn’t being advertised, a question that most people don’t have a reason to ask, and something even my grandmother who grew up in rural Switzerland did not know about until earlier this year when she saw it as a side note in a documentary.
When you do give it some thought, something clicks. Humans (and other mammals) don’t continue lactating forever either after their babies are done breast feeding. It’s true that you can generally prolong the production of milk by continuing to breast feed (or pump), but apparently with cows, the limit of how long you can get them to keep lactating by milking them regularly is around one year. Thus they need to have another child to provide more milk.
Now some people would already argue that the annual act of impregnating the cows in an of itself constitutes a crime on the same level as sexual abuse or rape. But while it’s certainly an unethical practice, it’s by far not the worst manifestation of the need to get cows pregnant.
Because what happens to the babies?
Fact #2: Calves (usually) get separated from their mothers.
Some days to weeks before it’s time to give birth, you can hear a cow mother-to-be practicing the unique sound she will use to call her child. The baby’s name, if you will.
Then, after the birth, you can hear her cry that name for days or weeks again. This time because directly after it was born, the calf is removed from its mother. This, because its suckling at its mother’s teat would interfere with mechanical milking and thus lower productivity.
Imagine someone stole your baby right from under you right after you (or your partner) gave birth to it.The mother cow will experience this trauma around three to five times in her life. (See fact #4 as to why three to six times).
It’s true that some farms let the mothers raise their offspring, but that is a) not the norm and b) often in practice just means that they get to spend some hours per day together. Still, it’s better than average.
If that wasn’t bad enough, let’s continue with the same question: Then what happens with the babies?
Fact #3: (Male) Dairy calves are not economically worth raising fully.
While female calves may grow up to experience the questionable joys of motherhood and daily painfully full and heavy udders, bred for size and production capacity themselves, what happens to the males?
As is often the case in animal husbandry, the males draw the short end of the stick; because as dairy cows, they were not bred for meat production, so they simply do not provide enough meat to be worth raising.
As a result, here comes the answer to the question of where veal comes from, and why so many traditional Swiss recipes feature veal as an ingredient…
… male dairy cows usually get to live to a ripe old age of three months (some up to six) before they’re slaughtered. To further illustrate this cruelty, a cow’s theoretical natural life span is somewhere around 20-35 years. These three month olds they’re murdering are literally prepubescent children.
Which is why when I recently looked at some of last year’s hiking pictures and videos, finding these two extraordinarily adorable calves we had met during a hike in Appenzell just broke my heart, even though before I knew about this, it used to be happy memory..
Finally, let’s get on to those 3-5 baby snatchings per cow, and the theoretical bit of the natural lifespan of a dairy cow.
Fact #4: A cow’s milk production wanes with age.
In fact, a dairy cow’s milk production will statistically start to decrease at around five to seven years of age (while she may get pregnant from two or three years old). Since we live in a highly optimized, efficient and capitalistic society, from that point on the cows are no longer economically viable and will be slaughtered as well, usually to be sold as soup meat.
Just to be clear, we’re talking about a slight decrease in milk production that will doom this cow, not a complete stop or inability to become pregnant again, though those would of course also be crimes that warrant a death sentence under our rule.
These four facts combined mean that the effect of buying cheese, milk, yogurt, etc. is equivalent to buying veal, since veal is just a byproduct of the dairy industry.
This may be hard to hear if you’re a vegetarian for ethical reasons and had been feeling pretty good about your lifestyle up to this point. I understand because it was hard for me too and I went through the denial and bargaining stages of grief myself before I accepted the truth and went vegan as a consequence. Do feel free to check these facts and think about the logical conclusion. Let it marinate for a bit.
Speaking of bargaining:
What if everyone was vegetarian? They wouldn’t produce veal anymore then, would they?
I had that thought too, briefly. And the answer is yes, they would stop producing veal. But that would not change any of the facts above. So to demonstrate what would happen, let me (very briefly) tell you about the rise in popularity of goat cheese in Switzerland:
- In recent years, Swiss people have been developing a taste for goat cheese and buying more than before, thus increasing demand and subsequently production.
- In recent years, Swiss people have not been buying more goat meat than before.
- Ergo, surplus (male) baby goats just get killed directly after birth, to not waste any resources on raising them (even if just for a few months to make “Gitzi” (baby goats to roast whole)).
I think that puts this particular glimmer of hope to rest.
Alternative ideas for both real and substitute Milk and Cheese
There is the theoretical possibility of using hormone therapy on cows to trick their bodies into believing they’re pregnant, allowing milk production without insemination and partially solving the baby cow dilemma. You’d still have some male babies that you’d have to decide what to do with (guess where that’s gonna go based on past evidence) because you’d still need new females to replace the “old” ones, and the “old” ones would probably still be “decommissioned”.
So while this would be an improvement over the status quo, it’s still highly unethical and not an option for me.
Letting them live
This hair brained idea is my own. It’s a thought I’ve had often over the past years.
What if we just let all the cows live, and milk the ones that have children? The result would be incredibly expensive, but ethically sound dairy products. Something for special occasions. Or would it?
It sounds good at first (to me) but according to some quick and dirty math, you’d end up with around 35 cows for every cow that produces milk at any given time. That’s a lot of extra cows. That means a lot of extra land used for keeping and feeding those cows. It also means a lot of extra methane in the atmosphere.
Unfortunately it’s true that increased efficiency in dairy farming also means decreased resource use and that there is a reciprocal relationship between animal welfare and ecological operation.
So that’s not a solution either.
There is some actual hope for us cheese lovers who have lost the appetite for cheese (or can’t fight their conscience anymore) in light of the above: Precision Fermentation.
Think lab meat, and substitute the meat for cheese. Okay, it’s not actually that similar in process, but it is a method of producing something very similar to cheese (or milk, yogurt, and other non-dairy products) by the use of highly specialized microbes in vats. So i think we can call the result lab-cheese after all.
Granted, though there are companies researching the technology, lab-cheese may be even further out than lab-meat.
I for one, am waiting impatiently.
The Egg Holocaust
On the one hand, it feels wrong to just tack the issue with eggs onto the milk-veal equivalency. In no way do I want to give the impression that the following is a lesser issue, and it absolutely deserves to be its own post. At the same time, the core topic is the same: Vegetarianism isn’t as ethical as people (especially vegetarians) would like to think it is.
Unfortunately, buying eggs isn’t any less ethically troublesome than buying dairy products, and for similar reasons.
Fact #1: Males are useless
Just as male dairy cows aren’t worth raising fully because they’re not bred for meat, male hatchlings from breeding programs aimed at egg production won’t get enough meat on their bones to be economically viable.
Unlike the calves, it’s not worth raising them at all, so hundreds of millions of them get killed on the day they were born, in the US alone. Death comes in the shape of gassing, being chucked into high speed meat grinders while fully conscious, or being sucked via a series of tubes onto an electrified kill plate. All of which horrific, and all of which come with countless cases of failed executions, for example because they weren’t left in the gas or on the electrified floor long enough, leading to a longer and more painful death.
Imagine seeing the light of the world for the first time – not natural light of course – in a cramped room with thousands of other newborns, only to be roughly handled and killed minutes to hours later. Systematically, without the chance to survive. And all because some guy blew your feathers and decided you’re male (there’s a margin of error).
Caveat 1: Technology might prevent this in the future.
There are efforts to cut this gruesome practice by determining the sex of the chicks before they even hatch by use of infrared technology and clever programming. We can debate the ethics of this, but it’s certainly better than the status quo.
Big American egg producers have promised this solution for 2020, but to the best of my knowledge, it hasn’t been implemented yet.
You also have to assume that this process will be rather expensive to set up, so smaller facilities may not be able to afford the initial investment, while the big factory farms will be able to afford it and will enjoy the positive PR, but at the same time treat the live chickens worse than any other producer. Call it a wash?
Caveat 2: Some farms raise the males alongside the females…
…usually until they’re around 3 months old, then they’re slaughtered and sold for meat. Yay.
Did you think the methods of chick-disposal above were horrific? Well, they’re about en par with common slaughterhouse techniques, obviously sans the meat grinder, but with the addition of being packed tightly onto a truck and driven to the slaughterhouse. Sometimes for days, without food or water.
Fact #2: Chickens don’t lay eggs forever.
Actually, they can continue laying eggs well into their golden years, but statistically, their productivity starts slightly decreasing around nine months to one year of age.
Three guesses as to what age they’re allowed to reach before they’re slaughtered and replaced by new chickens?
A chicken’s live span, depending on race, is around ten years, by the way.
Ergo: Buying eggs supports the mass murder of chickens.
If you’ve decided to stop eating meat, including chicken, out of ethical reasons, then you’ve decided that killing chickens for food is wrong. Since you’ll be hard pressed to find eggs from a producer that doesn’t kill their chickens at all, ever, and since chickens are killed in the hundreds of millions annually as part of the process of egg production, we have to conclude that buying eggs is also wrong.
As with dairy products, there is a sliver of hope on the horizon: Precision fermentation may also deliver onto us an egg alternative that is as good as the real thing, perhaps even nutritionally, though probably not (eggs are a real superfood).
Veganism is the only ethical option, I’m afraid.
If I can live without mayo (and if you knew me personally, you’d know just how much I love mayo), then I believe you can live without dairy and eggs as well. It may not be fun, especially at first, but it’s the right thing to do. In time, you will discover fabulous vegan dishes that don’t try (and fail) to emulate meat or cheese, but are delicious in their own right. Trust me, and please try.
PS: Cold turkey is the only way that works. And anyway, if you agree that buying cheese and eggs is ethically wrong, then “cutting back on it” is still ethically wrong.
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At this point, you may be hesitant to believe these rantings without seeing any sources for any of my claims. Good! We should all stop believing random people on the internet just because they sound like they know what they’re talking about. So here’s where I’m coming from:
The life of: dairy cows – Compassion in Farming
Facts on Veal Calves – Humane Society
An HSUS Report: The Welfare of Animals in the Egg Industry – Humane Society
By 2020, Male Chicks May Avoid Death By Grinder – National Geographic