Free Range Dairy | Cows in the road

A recent blog by fellow Free Range Dairy Network director, Carol Lever, cited consumer research by Harris Interactive, which provided a sharp insight into changing attitudes toward milk and dairy, particularly amongst 16 to 24 year olds. 39% of respondents in this age group said they were ditching dairy, due to increasing concerns about its impact on their health and animal welfare.

From a dietary perspective, it’s easy to understand why people struggle to make an informed decision about what they should and shouldn’t eat, when bombarded with conflicting messages about what’s good for them and what’s not. Nowhere are those messages more confusing than in milk and dairy right now. Young consumers who turn to mobile devices for answers, can find thousands of self-appointed, wellbeing gurus, who are responsible for turning food into fashion. But there is a real danger that this season’s exciting new fashion collection, could prove to be a ticking time bomb for those at a crucial stage of development. Clinical and sports dietician, Rick Miller, recently explained the potential dangers of ditching dairy in a Huffington Post article and why he continues to question the rationale of young patients who decide to go dairy free on a whim.

Food fashion is perhaps responsible for some ditching animal products, but the influence of emotive claims, made by food and farming lobby groups, seem to have an altogether more worrying effect on the young. Just last weekend I learned that a friend’s 18 year old daughter, who has been a vegetarian for the past two years, is now being urged by her friends to ‘go all the way’ and join them in becoming a vegan. I can’t help wondering if the apparent overnight rush, to make such potentially life changing decisions, are a ‘Generation Snowflake’ phenomenon, fuelled by the sensational claims of animal rights and vegan organisations. Writing in the Telegraph in June 2016, Alex Proud asked “Why would anyone in their right mind want to join the vegan cult?” and I get the feeling that is what veganism is becoming – a cult, whose agenda may the threaten the health and wellbeing of millions of young people in years to come.

We all know that sensational headlines and shocking images grab our attention. A retiring Irish dairy farmer is reported to have recently saved her herd of 70 cows from slaughter, by raising money to send them to a sanctuary in Norfolk. Many dairy farmers will know, all too well, the pain and sadness that Jill Smith felt, when the day came for her to give up dairy farming. Herds in the UK are sold up and dispersed on a daily basis, either due to a lack of willing family successors, or a crippling lack of value in the milk they produce. I hope Mrs Smith’s cows have truly gone to a ‘heaven on earth’ for animals, as the charity involved described it and these bovine retirees have not been shipped across the Irish Sea to simply create another newspaper story. When their 900km live animal transport experience deposits them in Norfolk pastures for all eternity, I trust that they will receive the same individual care that the farmer would have given them and regular veterinary inspections will ensure they do not become suffering, recumbent symbols of defiance.

I question the thinking of those who believe that ditching dairy will really make a difference to them, or the cows they seek to free from perceived torture and I do not believe that scare stories around a food that has nourished our lives for generations, will drive 65 million UK citizens to cease all consumption of milk and dairy. If they did, I struggle to see, in an era when most of the population have made little provision for their own retirement, where additional voluntary contributions will come from, to support 1.8 million dairy cows no longer in gainful employment. If a mass cull is the only answer, will vegans and animal rights activists be willing to pull the trigger? Furthermore, will they then dutifully ‘go ruminant’ and attempt to graze our pastures themselves? Or, if rapidly growing demand for plant food (and drink) leads to unethical and unsustainable production practices and puts our health at risk, will its advocates form a new ‘post-vegan’ cult that renounces all forms of nourishment and voluntarily starves themselves to death? I doubt it. However, ridiculous this might all sound, a campaign to turn everyone off dairy and livestock farming will leave behind millions of hectares of grassland; a wonderful food resource wasted.

I believe that if you really care about cows and want to make a difference, you are far more likely to achieve your goals by actively participating in initiatives to drive positive change, rather than compiling livestock ‘horror shows’ for your You Tube channel. Examine all the evidence, rather than jumping on the latest food fashion trend. Take a look to find out what really goes on, on dairy farms and try to understand what is driving farmers to adopt the practices they do. Farmers systems evolve to meet the needs of the market. If those needs are cheap food and fat margins, ask the big food companies and retailers where their responsibilities lie in ensuring food is fair to animals and our planet.

Food sovereignty is a term we will continue to hear in political debate around Brexit and many take it to mean our capacity to feed ourselves from within the bounds of our own shores, or self-sufficiency. But the term was actually coined by members of the international peasants movement La Via Campesina in 1996 and asserts that “the people who produce, distribute, and consume food should control the mechanisms and policies of food production and distribution, rather than the corporations and market institutions they believe have come to dominate the global food system”. I have always felt that the food agenda should be set by farmers and consumers. But more and more food businesses seeking profit from food, en route from farm to fridge, have inserted themselves between these two parties.

I don’t claim that the standards behind the Pasture Promise logo represent a perfect milk production system, which meets all the needs of farmers, cows and consumers. But, when it comes to promoting an alternative vision to the industrial production of milk, freedom for cows is a good place to start, because it sets an agenda that puts cows first. We are driving demand for a more informed milk choice and helping people to see through misleading dairy labels, by offering provenance that tells shoppers not just where but how. I hope plant food lovers and cow lovers alike, will understand how we are encouraging farmers to give their cows the freedom to graze in fields and make the best possible use of nature’s plant food that we cannot digest.

If you migrate from the dairy aisle to the nuts and plants aisle, you are turning your back on the cows and they will not migrate to blissful sanctuaries of green, but into an increasingly industrial regime. So I ask you, rather than ditch dairy and relinquish your chance to vote for better dairy, please demand a choice about the kind of farming that delivers your milk. The cows are happy in the fields, help us to keep them there.


Leave a Reply