Food for Thought |

The Quest for Eth­i­cal Milk For those who don’t want to give up dairy but do want to limit an­i­mal suf­fer­ing, what are the op­tions? Matt Har­ri­son sur­veys the sit­u­a­tion, vis­it­ing a lo­cal or­ganic farm to see the re­al­ity of dairy farm­ing

Ottawa Magazine - - CITY BITES -

When it comes to the his­tory of gro­cery shop­ping, I imag­ine the 1950s as a golden age, a time of ig­no­rant bliss when shop­ping was a sim­ple mat­ter of eco­nom­ics and con­ve­nience. The aver­age shop­per didn’t scru­ti­nize pack­ag­ing as we do to­day, de­ci­pher­ing such la­bels as Or­ganic, Fair-trade, Cer­ti­fied Hu­mane, Gluten-free, Free-run, Nest-laid, Sus­tain­able, Lo­cal, etc.

To­day’s gro­cery-shop­ping ex­pe­ri­ence is a quag­mire of eth­i­cal dilem­mas. Go for the or­ganic — but what about all that plas­tic pack­ag­ing? Do I pay an ex­tra dol­lar for ba­nanas picked by work­ers who re­ceive a fair wage? That pack­age of beef is la­belled Cer­ti­fied Hu­mane — but it’s still the flesh of an an­i­mal.

While I’m hav­ing a panic at­tack ne­go­ti­at­ing th­ese con­cerns, there’s al­ways an­other kind of shop­per. It’s with a mix­ture of re­sent­ment and envy that I watch as they take two sec­onds to find their item and, with a care­free twist of the wrist, toss it into the bas­ket while hum­ming along to a Muzak ver­sion of Love­fool piped in from over­head.

For years now, my fam­ily has been try­ing to nav­i­gate this new gro­cery-shop­ping world, with suc­cesses and fail­ures. Among the var­i­ous eth­i­cal con­sid­er­a­tions, dairy is a weight on our minds. We’ve tried al­ter­na­tives — al­mond and soy milk — but our two girls sim­ply haven’t de­vel­oped a lik­ing for them, no mat­ter how hard we’ve pushed. They like cow’s milk. Ini­tially, we started buy­ing or­ganic milk be­cause we had heard about growth hor­mones in tra­di­tional cow’s milk. Turns out, this was never true. Our first daugh­ter was born in 2010, al­most nine years af­ter Health Canada pub­lished a re­port af­firm­ing the ban of such hor­mones in Canada. In other words, since the 1990s, our milk has not had the growth hor­mones that ex­ist in other coun­tries such as the United States. (That’s chang­ing, though: fol­low­ing new trade deals that al­low U.S. milk to be sold in Canada, con­sumers want­ing to avoid growth hor­mones need to look for the blue­and-white Dairy Farm­ers of Canada logo.)

Even so, we con­tin­ued to buy or­ganic be­cause we were wary of ge­net­i­cally mod­i­fied or­gan­isms

(GMOs), which were in­tro­duced into Cana­dian food sys­tems in the early ’90s. Though con­cerns about GMOs have made head­lines for decades, stud­ies have proven that they are not harm­ful to hu­man health. One well-known an­tiGMO ac­tivist — Bri­tain’s Mark Ly­nas, co-founder of Cor­po­rate Watch mag­a­zine — re­canted in 2013, pub­licly stat­ing: “For the record, here and up­front, I apol­o­gize for hav­ing spent sev­eral years rip­ping up GM crops. I’m also sorry that I helped to start the anti-GM move­ment …”

So why are we still buy­ing or­ganic milk? It def­i­nitely costs more. Here’s where the ethics of dairy en­ter the de­bate.

In the dairy sec­tion of the gro­cery store, sev­eral milk pro­duc­ers adorn their car­tons with happy-look­ing cows, some graz­ing in Edenic set­tings. How­ever, th­ese pas­toral de­pic­tions hide an ugly truth: large-scale milk pro­duc­tion glob­ally, but also in Canada, is more likely to take place in a fac­tory set­ting than a green space. As more peo­ple see what re­ally goes on, dairy prac­tices are be­ing de­scribed as cruel.

In 2015, an un­der­cover video shot by a mem­ber of non-profit group Mercy for An­i­mals showed an­i­mal abuse at a B.C. dairy farm that sup­plies milk for Mon­treal dairy giant Sa­puto. It was so hor­rific that it moved Lino Sap­tuto Jr., son of the cor­po­ra­tion’s founder, into re­spond­ing. “… It was some­thing that I never want to see again,” he told the Globe and Mail. In recog­ni­tion that this was a sys­temic prob­lem, the com­pany re­sponded by an­nounc­ing a new pol­icy on an­i­mal wel­fare that it would ex­pect its sup­pli­ers to ad­here to. (Mercy for An­i­mals cel­e­brated the move but still urged peo­ple to avoid dairy al­to­gether. Their press re­lease noted that while the new pol­icy “means mil­lions of an­i­mals around the world will gain some re­lief from suf­fer­ing, there is still much work to be done. Re­mem­ber, the most im­por­tant ac­tion we can take to help farmed an­i­mals is to choose healthy and hu­mane ve­gan foods.”)

As more and more of th­ese abuses within the large-scale dairy in­dus­try come to light, it’s not hard to un­der­stand why milk con­sump­tion is plum­met­ing. Ac­cord­ing to Statis­tics Canada, na­tional per capita milk con­sump­tion dropped by 18 per cent be­tween 1995 and 2014. A 2018 study at Dal­housie Uni­ver­sity sug­gests that nearly three mil­lion Cana­di­ans — mostly un­der the age of 35 — iden­tify as be­ing veg­e­tar­ian or ve­gan; an­i­mal wel­fare is cited as be­ing a con­tribut­ing fac­tor in their de­ci­sion.

At the same time, I’ve be­gun to see such la­bels as Cer­ti­fied Hu­mane, Freerun, and Nest-laid af­fixed to meat pack­ages and egg car­tons. Now, I’m not naive enough to as­sume that there’s any real com­par­i­son be­tween a name­less chicken from a fac­tory farm where free-run (and/or nest-laid) eggs are pro­duced and a chicken raised on a hobby farm. But com­pared with an­i­mals in the fac­tory farm in­dus­try, th­ese la­bels do sug­gest that they are be­ing treated more hu­manely. And yet what does that re­ally mean? And is it hu­mane enough to jus­tify the ex­tra cou­ple of bucks? If I’m hon­est with my­self, it comes down to one ques­tion: how much suf­fer­ing is jus­ti­fi­able for my din­ner?

That same ques­tion can be posed to the dairy in­dus­try. For ve­g­ans, the an­swer is ob­vi­ous: no amount of suf­fer­ing is ac­cept­able, thus dairy is not an op­tion. But for those who don’t want to give up milk but do want to limit suf­fer­ing, what are the op­tions?

The an­swer seems to be as­so­ci­ated with two pop­u­lar pack­age la­bels: Or­ganic and Lo­cal.

One of the or­ganic dairy farms clos­est to Ot­tawa is Biemond Up­per Canada Cream­ery, lo­cated near Iro­quois, On­tario. I wanted to see their oper­a­tion for my­self, so I took a drive to the farm, where I was greeted by Josh Biemond, a sec­ond-gen­er­a­tion or­ganic farmer who’s car­ry­ing on where his par­ents left off.

He says he has cho­sen to con­tinue run­ning an or­ganic dairy farm be­cause, quite sim­ply, “it is bet­ter.”

“We take care of our an­i­mals bet­ter, we don’t push our an­i­mals too hard, we don’t use chem­i­cals,” he proudly said at the be­gin­ning of our farm-to-fridge tour.

Biemond has 400 acres of pas­ture and a herd of 100 cows that pro­duce all man­ner of dairy prod­ucts. Biemond toured me around his farm, where I saw cows grouped to­gether in the shade of a tree. From a dis­tance, and to my un­trained eye, they ap­peared healthy, do­ing what do­mes­ti­cated cows do when in pas­ture: rest, chew, swish their tails.

The barns we walked through, ex­cept­ing a large hay-strewn pen where six or so calves were rest­ing, were empty. A nice day such as this one is ideal for or­ganic farm­ers to ful­fill their obli­ga­tion to en­sure that the herd has ac­cess to the out­side through­out the year, as laid out in the guide­lines for or­ganic dairy farm­ers by On­tario’s Min­istry of Agri­cul­ture, Food, and Ru­ral Af­fairs. The min­istry stip­u­lates that 30 per cent of the cows’ feed must be from pas­ture. Biemond con­firms this, not­ing the cows have to be out­side 120 days a year — min­i­mum. And that pas­ture needs to be over an acre per cow.

But where’s the ac­count­abil­ity? “We’re in­spected twice a year — spring

“We’re not the same [as the an­i­mals]. We still treat them with the ut­most re­spect. But my be­lief is they don’t have souls. It’s not an easy thing to nav­i­gate”

and fall — as well as ran­dom in­spec­tions,” he says, and in re­sponse to an un­in­ten­tional look of skep­ti­cism that flashes across my face, he clar­i­fies. In­spec­tors, he says, are trained — not just to see where the cows are or what they’re do­ing on any given visit but to look at the other de­tails around the farm that in­di­cate com­pli­ance: Is the grass be­ing eaten (is it long and un­used or short and trod­den)? Are the an­i­mals mus­cu­lar, from ex­er­cise? One claim made against or­ganic stan­dards is that the lan­guage is vague: phras­ing like “an­i­mals should have ac­cess ...” al­low wig­gle room. But Biemond sup­ports the min­istry’s ap­proach.

“Ever seen a cow on ice? If the yard is full of ice, is the farmer do­ing a bet­ter job keep­ing them in­side or let­ting them out? Or what if it’s mi­nus 30 out­side?” Biemond says that if there is vague­ness in the word­ing, it’s there only to al­low the farmer — the ex­pert, as he points out — to make the best de­ci­sion for the an­i­mal, given the out­door en­vi­ron­men­tal con­di­tions.

As we toured the farm, I put more ques­tions to Biemond.

What’s the life­span of your cows? “Any­where from three years, for an an­i­mal we’re rais­ing for beef, to six to 18 years for [dairy] cows — it all de­pends on how pro­duc­tive and healthy they stay.”

How of­ten are the cows milked? “Twice a day.” (Some non-or­ganic farms milk three or more times a day, though it can be more, de­pend­ing on the cow’s lac­ta­tion cy­cle.)

What would you say to ac­tivists who ar­gue that the dairy in­dus­try sup­ports the veal in­dus­try? “Here on this farm, we have a num­ber of hobby farms or fam­i­lies that come and buy them. They raise them up for their own beef. So none of our calves go to veal.”

Biemond leads me into the main barn, where I see sev­eral calves ly­ing in a spa­cious, hay-strewn area that’s sit­u­ated op­po­site to where the moth­ers are milked. (The moth­ers are out in the pas­ture.)

“Th­ese are our young calves — they’re still nurs­ing. Do they look dis­tressed to you?” he asks. “We let our calves stay with the moth­ers for a week . ... They’re fed their mother’s milk, so they still get the nu­tri­ents from the mother, and the moth­ers are right here, twice a day, look­ing at their calves.”

Again, sens­ing my un­in­ten­tional re­ac­tion — per­haps a look of C’mon, they only get to look at their calves? — he adds, “Calves rec­og­nize their moms for six months. Af­ter that, there’s no con­nec­tion what­so­ever.”

In­deed, ac­cord­ing to a Swedish pa­per pub­lished in 2013 that stud­ied the be­hav­iours of semi-wild cat­tle, re­searchers found that the mother-and-young bond usu­ally con­tin­ues for about 120 days af­ter birth. That’s the pe­riod when the cow’s flow of milk is at its high­est; farm­ers don’t want all that pre­cious milk go­ing to the calves. Hence the de­ci­sion to sep­a­rate mother and calf.

How­ever, re­cent stud­ies have shown that an­i­mals such as cows have more com­plex emo­tions than once thought. Ac­cord­ing to a 2014 study, cows suf­fer­ing from anx­i­ety, pos­si­bly af­ter sep­a­ra­tion from their calves, don’t per­form as well on cog­ni­tive tests — some­thing re­searchers have also found in hu­mans suf­fer­ing from anx­i­ety.

And so, whether a cow and her calf are sep­a­rated im­me­di­ately af­ter birth, as is the case with most non-or­ganic farms, or sep­a­rated one week af­ter birth, as on Biemond’s or­ganic farm, it would seem both go against the an­i­mals’ nat­u­ral be­hav­iour, which can lead to anx­i­ety, a form of suf­fer­ing.

But Biemond won­ders if we don’t have to draw a line some­where.

“We are not the same [as an­i­mals],” he says. “We still treat them with the ut­most re­spect. But my be­lief is they don’t have souls. It’s not an easy thing to nav­i­gate.”

It’s this kind of think­ing that al­lows him to treat an­i­mals dif­fer­ently than he would peo­ple. Sep­a­rat­ing hu­man moth­ers from their chil­dren is ob­vi­ously cruel, but Biemond won­ders if that same hu­man ar­gu­ment isn’t be­ing un­fairly ap­plied to an­i­mals by ve­g­ans.

He re­peats: “Where do we draw the line?”

Leav­ing the farm, I re­flected back

on my orig­i­nal ques­tion: Is or­ganic dairy bet­ter, from an eth­i­cal per­spec­tive?

His an­i­mals are still slaugh­tered for beef, they’re still ar­ti­fi­cially in­sem­i­nated, milked by a ma­chine, kept in a con­stant state of lac­ta­tion, and the moth­ers are still sep­a­rated from their calves — all valid claims made by those op­posed to the dairy in­dus­try.

That said, Biemond’s farm does not re­sem­ble a fac­tory, where hun­dreds of cows are se­questered in tiny pens, re­stricted from the out­doors, and milked three or four times a day. Rather, its pas­tures are dot­ted with groups of re­laxed-look­ing cows, like one of those idyl­lic farms we see il­lus­trated in chil­dren’s books.

Feel­ing adrift some­where in the mid­dle, I’m left with more ques­tions than an­swers. I reached out to a long­time ve­gan who told me that she did not choose to be­come ve­gan overnight and, in fact, that she’d be skep­ti­cal of any­one who did. Her choice was the re­sult of a well-thought-out de­ci­sion, af­ter care­ful con­sid­er­a­tion about the same ques­tions I was ask­ing my­self. She de­scribed it as a jour­ney.

It would seem that my fam­ily and I are some­where in that process. At the very least, we’re hav­ing the con­ver­sa­tion. And talk­ing with my kids about my ex­pe­ri­ence on the Biemond farm was a great way to talk to them about why I was there, what an or­ganic farm is — and even what ethics are.

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