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23rd February 2016

Veganism: Just an udder first world problem?

With the increasing popularity of vegan diets, and more and more students abstaining from dairy products, Helena Maxwell-Jackson chats to a local dairy farmer to find out if we should be concerned about dairy, or if the whole conversation is just udderly ridiculous?

If you’re fan of first world problems, you’ve probably ordered an almond milk latte from one Northern Quarter coffee establishment or another. You may have sighed, with resigned indignation, as the single-origin espresso curdles unpleasantly with the tree-nut maltodextrin solution; and watched as each coagulated clot plunges into the depths of your now-black coffee.

At about this time, you might be thinking to yourself: wouldn’t a regular cup of joe with some full fat milk just have been simpler? You may have even wonder this out loud to your friends.

That would be a mistake. Let’s face it, you’re only at the organic café because it’s one of the only places in town that offer dairy-free brownies. Now, that’s important to your friend. She is a vegan. She has watched Cowspiracy. She’s made you watch it too, and that’s why you’re here, sipping your congealed almond milk latte and trying not to look at the man eating cheese on toast. The scent of molten savoury goodness is wafting over, going up your nose. Your eyes drift toward the cheese. God, that looks good. Quickly, you tear your gaze away. It’s too late. She’s seen you looking, she’s on to you. Quick, find an excuse. You mumble something about liking his flannel shirt. Will she believe you?

There are many reasons that people abstain from dairy products, but for your average non-lactose intolerant student living in the UK, is dairy really something to be worried about? Documentaries such as Cowspiracy, and organisations like PETA, certainly make it seem like it is, and they certainly offer a compelling argument too.

However, with the most anti-dairy activists based in the US, is the message really that relevant to those of us who live in the UK? Surely we can enjoy our cheese and onion pasties in peace? At least until TTIP (Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership)? I decided to contact a local Lancashire farmer to find out just what was really going on on a dairy farm. I wanted to know the answers to the issues surrounding dairy farming which really concerned me.

Cows need to be impregnated annually in order to continue on lactating. Animal activists often compare the artificial insemination of the dairy cows to rape. As a feminist, I couldn’t help but find this comparison more than a little offensive. Although, in all honesty, I am not quite sure if I was outraged by such an extreme example of anthropomorphism, or because I was eating cheesy pasta when I found out.

I wondered if our local farmer could clear some things up for me. What was the reality of artificial insemination?

“It’s just like a bull, but a man with a straw instead of a bull with a penis.”

He went on to explain that the process occurred when the cow was in heat: “Our cows have a collar with a microphone on that listens to the cow and also measures how far the cow walks everyday, when the cow walks a long way and stops eating for a day it means she’s looking for a bull. We then call the Artificial Insemination Technician 24-hours later…Hopefully one insemination and it’s all over….”

From his answer, it seemed like the cow might, at least slightly, mind being artificially inseminated. I wondered why the farmer said he hoped it would all be over in one insemination. Was that because it was a disturbing process for the technician, or an expensive one for the farmer, or was it because, although in heat, the cow didn’t enjoy being penetrated by a man brandishing a straw?

The farmer didn’t say much about the process after the pregnancy. I had read that the cow mourned for her calf when they were separated from one another. When I asked the farmer about this, he admitted he disliked that part of the job. I asked him how he felt about grass as one of the methods to feed cattle. One of the concerns that many people have about dairy is that using grain to feed cattle is environmentally unsustainable.

“As a farm that measures and tries to use as much grass as possible I’m biased toward grass fed systems! I do feel cows are generally happier when out at grass… I do use small amounts of grains to supplement when grass quality is poor and cow’s health would suffer, but dairy farms using vast amounts of grain to substitute grass seems ridiculous both at current milk prices and unless the farm actually grows all the grains it uses itself and can convert them efficiently to milk, the carbon footprint is greatly affected. Obviously growing grains to use for the cows on the farm is great as it sets up a crop rotation that kills weeds without pesticides, which to me makes sense as a holistic approach to farming”

I liked the idea of taking a holistic approach to farming, and the idea of a closed circuit method of farming, and questioned him as to how the low buying price of milk affected dairy farmers in the UK: “A low price may make some UK farmers think more about moving to a grass-based system, and it may force producers out, that simply cannot afford to reinvest—whilst this is a bad situation it’s maybe better to exit than compromise on long term welfare and environmental investment.”

I was concerned that the low buying prices might turn more farmers to mass dairy farming, and asked him what he thought about dairy farming on such a mass scale: “If it’s done well, it can have higher welfare standards over and above what anyone would expect, but it’s based on people wanting cheap food and who possibly don’t care where their food comes from – these systems try and produce as cheaply as possible. Ultimately it’s the consumers choice—I feel it’s wrong we are more bothered about new types of phones and televisions… and want to spend so little on food!”

It seemed that, for our dairy farmer, the future of the industry rested largely with the consumers.

The farmer seemed very aware of the potential environmental implications of dairy farming, and was sympathetic to animal welfare concerns. Speaking to this local farmer didn’t completely put my mind at rest, and whilst I can’t say that I will be indulging in dairy with a completely clear conscious, I do want to learn more about the industry, whilst still maintaining an open mind.

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